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Can We Separate an Artist from His Work?

Random Thoughts #2

After my last movie review, I knew I had to do this piece.  As I mentioned, one of the true saving graces of Howard the Duck was the character of Dr. Jenning, played by Jeffrey Jones.  In fact, that was par for the course for him as he was one of the most prominent supporting players of the 80s and 90s.  Just off the top of my head, I can name several great performances from him.  He brought memorable performances to Amadeus, Beetlejuice, Stay Tuned, Sleepy Hollow, and The Devil's Advocate.  Of course, I definitely couldn't ignore his career-defining role as Dean Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.


Jones may appear, based on those examples alone, to do no wrong in Hollywood.  This made it incredibly shocking when he was arrested in 2002 for possessing child pornography and even trying to coerce a 14-year-old boy into posing for nude pictures.  Even though he pleaded no contest and was only sentenced to probation and registration as a sex offender, his career was thoroughly destroyed.  There were even complaints from the South Carolina community where the movie Who's Your Caddy? was being filmed because families were around him.

I was able to overlook his personal issues even if others wouldn't.  There were no reports of him actually touching the boy in question, and he did his time (though he did get arrested twice for failing to renew his registration).  Surely, his body of work could override this personal black mark, right?  This got me thinking of whether people could separate artists' personal troubles from their artistic output.  Was it possible?  To answer that, let's look at a few more examples.

In 2017, it seemed like half of Hollywood was getting busted for sexual harassment after Harvey Weinstein.  While very few of the allegations led to criminal charges, just the allegations alone were enough to destroy distinguished careers.  Probably the biggest fall from grace during that period was in the case of Kevin Spacey.  There were sixteen allegations of Spacey making sexual advances (some violently) toward men with even a couple of them being underage.  At the time of writing, none of the allegations have become criminal charges, but they were enough to get him kicked out of his show House of Cards and several movie projects.  His PR firm even cut all ties with him.


I can understand people having an incredibly low opinion of him now as a person, but does that tarnish his existing work?  While I do acknowledge that the reports of his sexual misconduct are absolutely disgusting, I still think his performances in front of the camera were fantastic.  His performance as the serial killer in Se7en was one of the greatest villain performances I'd ever seen alongside his part as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects.  He was magnetic in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Pay It Forward.  In fact, his performance in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare made that one of the few Call of Duty games worth playing for the story.  Believe me, I'm leaving out a ton of stuff here.  Should all that acclaim be completely nullified because of what he was doing when the cameras weren't rolling?

Not all the questionable artists committed sexual misconduct.  Look at the case of Phil Spector.  He was one of the most prominent record producers of the 60s and 70s.  He invented the concept of the "Wall of Sound." His production work made stars out of the Righteous Brothers and Ike and Tina Turner.  He did some of the production work for the Beatles' final album Let It Be.  He was a certified hit maker.  However, that legacy was completely destroyed when he was convicted in April 2009 for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.  He is now looking at spending the rest of his life in prison.  Does that automatically make "Unchained Melody" and "The Long and Winding Road" bad songs just because he produced them?  No, of course not.
Now, I'm not going to stick my neck out for just anyone, but there are plenty who will.  Such is the case with Chris Brown.  I had never even heard of the guy until he got busted in 2009 for beating his then-girlfriend Rihanna.  His response afterward was appalling from denial and evasiveness in interviews to getting a tattoo that looks suspiciously like what Rihanna's face looked like immediately after the beating.  To be fair, I gave his music a listen afterward to see if his work was defensible at least, and I was unimpressed.  Most of his output wasn't bad, but it was decidedly average, hardly sticking out from the rest of the R&B scene of the time.  While I'm not inclined to separate Brown's work from his temperament, there are plenty who are.  I guess that counts for something.


In the end, it comes down to the audience's personal values.  Some people may ignore the personal screw-ups in favor of their great work while others have reinforced the connection between the two so tightly that CDs and DVDs get thrown away.  Even I'm subjective on that front as shown by how I went to bat for Phil Spector's artistic output but not Chris Brown's.  I would say that the output should get a fair shake regardless.  A person is not defined by one aspect alone, after all.

Thoughts on this?  Let me know, and take care.

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