Is it possible to separate the work from its creator?

13 Jun


by Linus Ekenstam via flickr


For as long as I can remember I’ve been completely disinterested in the private lives of notable creatives. I rarely read magazine accounts of the writer in her study, the artist in his studio, of the non-working lives of actors, directors, screenwriters, musicians et al. I’ve long adored the works of Leonard Cohen, for example, but I will not read his biography. I’m in awe of the narrative and imaginative powers of Hilary Mantel and I don’t have one fig of interest in any aspects of her personal life. I’ve never wanted to meet authors or attend writers’ festivals, though I’ve done both.

For me, knowledge of or engagement with a work’s creator interferes with my own imaginative and intellectual process. For me, the author was dead long before I ever encountered Roland Barthes. For me, “a text’s unity lies not in its origins (the author) but in its destination” (the reader).

I don’t know how to explain this lack of interest. I wonder if I ought to be ashamed to confess it. My gratitude, my admiration and my love for artists who enrich my world is inspired entirely by their creations which are complete in themselves, arriving in my life like jewels. Thank you, I think, for giving this to the world in all its complexity. I do not need or want to know anything else about you, other than that you have produced this work.

I think the first time this distance became impossible to maintain was in 1992, when Woody Allen was first of accused of sexually molesting his daughter, Dylan. I’d enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with Allen’s work: smart, funny, irritating, neurotic, mediocre, astonishingly good, boring, enchanting. After I learned of the accusations and became unwillingly aware of the proceedings that resulted, I could not watch an Allen movie without experiencing intrusive and unwelcome thoughts about its director. This knowledge of Allen’s alleged behaviour created in me a caution, a wariness, a holding back from engagement with his work that was extremely uncomfortable, to the degree that I could no longer enjoy his movies. I could no longer behave as if the author was dead: the author’s life had so vividly inserted itself into my world that ignoring it was impossible.

The work hadn’t changed. The talent and the fraught psycho-sexual ambiguities remained. But the text’s unities acquired a different destination: an audience altered by confronting information about its author. I didn’t find myself analysing the movies in the light of this new information, looking for clues in scripts and scenes. I simply experienced a powerful visceral retreat, a retreat I fought tooth and nail to resist because I didn’t want to lose my relationship with Allen’s body of work. I wanted the familiar partition between the private life and the work but try as I might, I could not maintain the distance.

The personal behaviour of the artist does not, in my opinion, affect the quality of his or her work. Great films remain great, great books remain unforgettable, great paintings are not altered for the worse by their creator’s offences. But once those offences are known, the works or the performance can’t be experienced with the same freedom, the freedom from knowledge and consideration of the artist’s private life.

It is not the works that change, it is their audience. The names of the creators have taken on new layers of meaning: where once Woody Allen signified a particular style of film making, now his name signifies that and sexual offences against his daughter. Kevin Spacey’s name signified a talented, mesmerising actor, now it signifies that and the man who raped and sexually molested those over whom he wielded power. As with Allan, I can’t watch Spacey perform anymore without that new knowledge of him intruding, yet his performance is still as superb as it was before I knew. I have changed as an audience, a reader, and it is knowledge of the artist’s life that has changed me.

Perhaps it is the desire of a child, to want to engage with works of art as if they exist independent of all human crimes and misdemeanours. There is a sense of loss of innocence upon realising that one may no longer enjoy freedom from knowledge. On the other hand, the freedom was an illusion all along, easier to maintain when scandals did not rupture the present, but were lodged safely in the distant past, or entirely hidden from public view.

I catch myself hoping, please let there not be anybody else whose work I love. Please, don’t make me have to lose anymore books and poems and plays and films and paintings to the knowledge of the human crimes and failings of their creators.

And last, but far from least, what about the victims? How can I laud Allen, or Spacey, or Dorothy Hewitt, after hearing the heart-wrenching accounts of those who’ve been so misused by them?

For me, the answer to the question that is the title of this piece is that once I would have steadfastly insisted that the work is separate from its creator, and that in its separateness lies its strength and beauty. Now I understand that there are circumstances that make such separation impossible, and this is not because the work is any the less, but because I as audience am changed by the knowledge of those circumstances. The change is not for the better.

At the same time there is an even bigger change underway, signified by the #MeToo movement that has led to the outing of so many notable creators accused of sexual offences against those over whom they have power and control. Beside this upheaval, my complaints are insignificant. Nevertheless, I sense we are going to have to find a way to acknowledge the disgust and anger we feel at those offenders, without discarding the creative work they produce. I have at this point no idea how this can be done.




38 Responses to “Is it possible to separate the work from its creator?”

  1. Sea Monster June 13, 2018 at 8:04 pm #

    Following my opinion about Ellis’ essays at the previous post. I don’t think you can separate the work from the man, because the work is about the man.

    I feel a lot of Allen’s work in recent decades is attempting to justify the “pursuit of passion” by tortured geniuses.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Elisabeth June 13, 2018 at 8:43 pm #

    It’s tricky isn’t it? I struggle with this daily. And not just in relation to sexually abusive men but in relation to female writers whose work I admire and who as far as I know have not committed such offences but who nevertheless might behave in ways that are anathema to me. We are complex human beings. There are things we do that we hope will not mark us for life by the single action of which we’re ashamed and it might be an egregious action, something that carries so much stigma. I’m glad we’re struggling with these issues. Notions of what’s ok and what’s not changes over time and it’s important to recognise this as well. It’s also important to call a spade a spade and not gloss over appalling behaviour. But I reckon we need to do so in a nuanced way. For this reason, I’m always grateful for your explorations, Jennifer. You bring together your own personal take with deeper thoughts on the human condition and how we can strive to improve on it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jennifer Wilson June 14, 2018 at 6:31 am #

      Thank you Elisabeth. This subject causes me a lot of angst. I cant claim to be even close to a resolution.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Dejan June 14, 2018 at 12:08 am #

    It’s good to have their work revisited with the new information in hand. True, their stars will shine less bright, but we’ll understand more about what has driven these people, so that we may choose differently… and make our own mistakes, perhaps. Someone once said something about there being ‘a crack in everything’…. Indeed, there is.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. rhyllmcmaster June 14, 2018 at 1:34 am #

    You can’t separate them. You have to live with the tension between what you know about the author, and the ineffable dream of immersion in the work, and I find that tension invaluable. For instance, we know that Tolstoy was a terrible bastard to his wife, so unkind in real life, and knowing that, we can hear the weakness in his authorial voice, the puffery and grandiloquence and the ratbaggery. It’s good to know these things.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson June 14, 2018 at 6:33 am #

      I love your comment, Rhyll. Of course we have to live with the tension and of course that adds to the experience. Many thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. rakum8 June 14, 2018 at 5:10 am #

    Brigid Delaney took up the matter of the sexual assaulting of the Lilley sisters, and the culpability of Dorothy Hewett, Bob Ellis, Hamilton etal in the Guardian yesterday:
    Rozanna and Kate Lilley are mentioned of course. More words however are devoted to Ellis although both sisters have just published books that brought the criminal sexual assault allegations into public discussion.

    Perhaps we’re confronted now with the dangers of the cult of celebrity – erroneously imparting imagined virtues to creative people who aren’t worthy of worship by their fanatical admirers. It is possible to rationally value the masterworks of people like the golden wordsmith of Murwillumbah while being fully cognizant of the criminal behavior we’ve been advised he engaged in four decades ago. I want the whole truth.

    I sure hope some glowing positive reviews of Kate and Rosie Lilley’s books will appear soon to shift the focus on to their literary prowess and perhaps amplify their voices.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Ray H June 16, 2018 at 1:58 pm #

      What criminal assault allegations? No one has been charged with an offence. In fact the sisters have not named the men that are still alive. Why?

      Perhaps you are making more of this than they are.


      • rakum8 June 17, 2018 at 2:35 am #

        Allegations of crimes of sexual assault even if not so named are made in the Lilley sisters’ books and in published transcripts of their several interviews. Penile penetration by adult male human predators of the vaginas of adolescent prey who’ve not reached the age of consent is a crime whatever the age specified in law even if debaters disagree with the age for the jurisdiction where the crimes occurred. In some jurisdictions it is called “statutory rape” regardless of the level of enthusiasm shown by the prey. Even if the term sexual assault is replaced by another term or if debaters decide that the statutes should be changed to raise the ages – the psychologically damaging predatory sexual acts remain the same. The semantic debate might be helpful if even one child were thereby protected and defended by preventing even one barbaric act of molestation.


        • Ray H June 18, 2018 at 8:35 pm #

          FYI – statutory rape is not applied in NSW.

          Currently NSW allows adolescents between the ages of 12-16 to consent to sex provided their partner is no more than 2 years in age difference. This means that today a permissive parent can ‘encourage’ her adolescent children to explore their sexuality, provided they are peers.

          In practice the authorities do not intervene unless there has been a complaint, and given the girls did not complain, nothing could be done.


          • June 22, 2018 at 6:05 pm #

            What ?


    • doug quixote June 17, 2018 at 10:43 am #

      Brigid’s article is interesting. Thanks for the link.


  6. diannaart June 14, 2018 at 12:36 pm #


    You manage to hit upon a raw nerve in the zeitgeist with so much of your work. Woody Allen’s outed behaviour was the beginning of a loss of innocence I did not expect as an adult, which you summarised so well with:

    *Perhaps it is the desire of a child, to want to engage with works of art as if they exist independent of all human crimes and misdemeanours. There is a sense of loss of innocence upon realising that one may no longer enjoy freedom from knowledge. On the other hand, the freedom was an illusion all along, easier to maintain when scandals did not rupture the present, but were lodged safely in the distant past, or entirely hidden from public view.*

    A common truism is never to meet one’s heroes – chances are we will be disappointed.

    I recall a saying attributed to Woody Allen: “My second favourite organ is my brain.” He was speaking the truth.

    However, I would rather the truth – with all its challenges and sorrows, than continue to live in ‘blissful’ ignorance.

    If deciding what to do with many of my DVD’s is difficult. Such a conundrum pales when compared to all the damage done by the sexual predator.

    There exist talented artists who do not cause harm to others. Simple reasoning suggests that this is also true.

    So why do some people regard their sexuality of more import than their intellect?

    What is it about so many that their sexual needs “trump’s” (could not resist) respect and compassion for others?

    Most of us do not sexually desire children’s bodies and/or the degradation of others.

    Has to be “most of us”.

    I am hoping this, in contradiction to the plethora of sexualised imagery used to promote everything.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jennifer Wilson June 14, 2018 at 5:50 pm #

      Thank you, Diannart. I was thinking today about how hard it must be for someone who has been hurt by one of these people to stand by and watch them admired and lauded for their work.

      Liked by 2 people

      • diannaart June 14, 2018 at 7:45 pm #

        That is an excellent frame of reference – when in doubt, try on another’s shoes.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Shreiking Wombat Ninja June 15, 2018 at 1:33 pm #

    Simple. Why treat him any differently to Rolf Harris or Jimmy Savile?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. samjandwich June 15, 2018 at 2:40 pm #

    Hello! And an interesting dilemma.

    My take on this is that a person’s dark side is integral to informing their creative output. it seems to me that what underlies great art is a background understanding of the extremes that human experience can reach, whether positive or negative – and so maybe great artists have a greater propensity to plumb the depths of depravity.

    And that’s as it should be! We don’t want to create a world characterised by thought control and conservatism, and where some ideas are too dangerous to be acknowledged – instead we need to create a world where we are aware of the damage that is caused when one steps over the line, and where those eventualities are prevented… because everyone is informed as to where “the line” is.

    Isn’t there a proverb about this… “to create a universe you must taste the forbidden fruit”? Actually I think this came from the Sugarcubes!


    • Jennifer Wilson June 15, 2018 at 6:10 pm #

      Imagine by all means. Just don’t bloody do it, is my opinion. I imagine decapitating certain people on a daily basis but I’m perfectly certain I’ll never do it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • diannaart June 16, 2018 at 10:53 am #

        The art of creation extends far more broadly than words on a page, daubs of paint on canvas or chords of music – there is creativity in preparing food or in science, when understanding illuminates the inquiring mind. Some creative people enjoy delving into their dark sides, however, there is no proven link between the “forbidden” and inspiration.

        The term ” “to create a universe you must taste the forbidden fruit” – can simply mean not accepting dogma or the status quo; for example Galileo did not bow to an intransigent religion.

        As Jennifer stated very clearly we can go anywhere we like within our own imaginations – we do not have to inflict our dark side upon others.

        Liked by 3 people

    • Nick June 16, 2018 at 1:52 pm #

      Did Kubrick need to ‘taste the forbidden fruit’ to show us where the lines are? Did Nachtwey have to mow people down himself with a machine gun to show us the horrors of war?

      Not knowing where the lines are – ‘needing to find out for yourself’ – doesn’t make you a good artist. It makes you a psychopath.

      “To create a universe you must taste the forbidden fruit”

      She also said God doesn’t exist about 50 times. That ‘proverb’ is nothing more than a delusion which exists inside your head.

      Liked by 1 person

      • samjandwich June 28, 2018 at 11:27 am #

        Er, I would have thought it was obvious that I’m not actually suggesting people should do those things – just that they need to be capable of imagining the worst of what humanity is capable of in order to construct a convincing and compelling narrative.


  9. rakum8 June 15, 2018 at 4:13 pm #

    Coincidence? Synchronicity!

    On this morning’s PBS Newshour, the African-American poet Imani Davis shared her poem “Platinum” as her contribution to the series “Brief but Spectacular”.

    She addresses precisely the same subject that has arisen here with the publication of books written by the Lilley sisters. She makes quite an impression. Maybe a more civilized culture can be seen to be emerging – that’s what the cultural revolution of fifty years ago was really all about – a new more civilized age for humanity – not just sexual liberation and the criminal libertinism that some of the exploiters and hijackers have claimed.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Ray H June 16, 2018 at 12:20 pm #

    Returning to No Place after a long break…

    Just a correction to your assertion regarding Woody Allen. The allegations made by Dylan have never been substantiated. They were reported promptly and appropriately investigated by trained child abuse specialists at the Yale-New Haven clinic. They were tasked by the Connecticut state prosecutor, again appropriately, to determine if Dylan was a reliable witness. They formed the view that she was not, suggesting that she may have been coached.

    An entirely separate investigation by the New York child protection services also cleared Allen.

    In addition, the psychologist (Dr Susan Coates) who worked with both Allen and Dylan after concerns about his claustrophobic parenting style were first raised, testified that she did not see signs of sexual abuse.

    Let me repeat that the only trained specialists to interview Dylan did not believe Allen molested Dylan.

    The ONLY evidence that he did is Dylan’s unsubstantiated assertion.

    Just recently her older brother Moses contradicted key elements of her story and confirmed the findings of the Yale-New Haven clinic that Dylan had been coached.

    Much has been made of the prosecutor’s statement that he had probable cause, a statement for which he was formally disciplined (this is not to be confused with Allen’s attempt to sue him). There is a strong case to suggest that the prosecutor made this statement to save face. The reality was that his case against Allen had collapsed. People also cite the judge in the custody battle. Whilst he did express serious concerns about Allen’s overall suitability as a parent he made it clear that he did not know if Allen had molested Dylan.

    Those who treat Allen with suspicion do so against the overwhelming evidence.


    • Jennifer Wilson June 17, 2018 at 7:52 am #

      As I say in the piece, Ray, I exercise my right to decide whom I will trust.


      • Ray H June 17, 2018 at 8:19 am #

        I don’t understand your comment. Are you saying you mistrust the findings of child abuse experts – the Yale-New Haven clinic is still in operation doing exactly the same work.


  11. doug quixote June 17, 2018 at 5:00 pm #

    Separate the artist from the work? Yes, very easily; but it’s far harder when the artist is still alive.


    • doug quixote June 17, 2018 at 5:02 pm #

      As a flippant addendum, I’m deeply grateful that I’ll never have to hear ‘six white boomers’ or ‘two little boys’ ever again.


      • rakum8 June 17, 2018 at 9:20 pm #

        No more Geetcha Girov either thank you very mucho gracias


        • June 22, 2018 at 6:04 pm #

          What ?


          • rakum8 June 24, 2018 at 3:34 pm #

            Rolf Harris invented the name “Geetcha Girov” and used it in one of his performances that was recorded.


  12. allthumbs June 23, 2018 at 5:04 pm #

    There is a tradition of film making and novels, I suppose primarily written by men, but not all, of the coming of age and the initiation/seduction of the young boy by the older woman.

    I wonder how this genre sits with the current ambiguity of historical sexual behaviour and whether it warrants our chagrin against those female actors that embodied those characters who had their way with the youthful men and the inverted power relationship.

    Should I have lost all respect for Jennifer O’Neill after seeing Summer of ’42, and Gloria Swanson after Sunset Boulevard and Kate Winslet in The Reader, and Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal, and Lea Massari after Murmur of the Heart, and Isabelle Hupert in The Piano Teacher, Anne Bancroft in The Graduate…. What were they thinking in participating in these strange imaginings, what message were they sending?

    One other word in regards to Ellis, have some thought for Anne his widow and what these recent revelations / accusations / confessions may mean for her.


    • doug quixote June 23, 2018 at 5:27 pm #

      Knowing Anne, I don’t think she’d be phased. She knew Bob all too well. 🙂


    • Sea Monster June 23, 2018 at 10:57 pm #

      There is a tradition, a trope even, in film making that physically unattractive but intellectual middle-aged men are irresistible to young women and girls.

      The trope goes further. The men are doing the girls a favour (tutoring them in the ways of love) by exploiting them.

      The Graduate is about a chap who has finished college. You can tell from the title. Chaps who have finished college are adults.

      The plot explores the harmful consequences of the relationship. And the flaws of the characters. And the flaws of the social circle.

      Are you trying to argue this Banroft’s fictional seduction of an adult, and exploring why the seduction was harmful, is somehow morally equivalent to Ellis’ (alleged) actual sex offence?

      I imagine Ellis’ widow is quite upset. But what ya gonna do? Are his (alleged) victims obliged to stay silent.


  13. allthumbs June 24, 2018 at 10:15 am #

    “Are you trying to argue this Banroft’s fictional seduction of an adult, and exploring why the seduction was harmful, is somehow morally equivalent to Ellis’ (alleged) actual sex offence? ”

    No. Why would you assume that?

    I imagine Ellis’ widow is quite upset. But what ya gonna do? Are his (alleged) victims obliged to stay silent.”

    No, Did I say that?

    “The Graduate is about a chap who has finished college. You can tell from the title. Chaps who have finished college are adults. ”

    A Graduate, do you mean like Monica Lewinsky?

    “Hewett’s frank and often personal depiction of female sexuality and strength was at times controversial, but cemented her reputation as a leading feminist, politically aware Australian writer who mastered many genres. Her contribution to literature was recognised in her appointments as writer-in-residence at universities in Australia and the USA, and the eight Australia Council fellowships she was awarded, before she was granted a lifetime Emeritus Fellowship from the Literature Board. In 1986 she was also made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to literature.”

    I kinda think of these kinds of forums as an opportunity to think out loud, not necessarily come up with an answer, wipe our brows and move on to the next random topic of Jennifer’s choosing and address that with another answer. As Jennifer points out with the passing of time our attitudes change and who is to say that what is decided today by any of us will remain eternal and inviolable. If that was so why has the Catholic Church simply not dissolved into a pool of tears?

    I only have reacted to this discussion because of a deeply personal reaction to the implications for me of Ellis’ behavior brought to light recently.

    One thing I am pretty sure of is that this kind of deconstruction of the past is a good thing, anything that pulls apart at the smug fabric in which we wrap ourselves and provides us with a sense of superiority, and starts the process of reflection will eventually embroil us all because one hypocrisy leads to another and as the bard rightly pointed out “who shall ‘scape whipping”?

    I think Lenny Bruce used to refer to the “good, good society” or the good, good people. He’d be great to have around now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nora June 26, 2018 at 8:10 am #

      It is interesting to observe the strategy of conflating fictional characterisations with actual alleged behaviours. The issue is not that Ellis wrote a fictional account of abusing underage girls rather that he allegedly abused underaged girls.
      The notion that Butterfly McQueen should be held responsible for the roles that were on offer to her is ridiculous. Who wrote the roles? Who benefited from the portrayal of African Americans as ridiculous and childlike? Who created the roles where she was the natural servant to the dominant white culture. Yes, white women have also portrayed men’s vision of the world. The alternative that was available at the time was what exactly?
      Complicity is complicated. The real question is, would the actresses who took roles that can be read as dubious today have done so if better, more varied roles were available to them. We’ll never know because the choice was not there.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. havanaliedown July 1, 2018 at 3:18 pm #

    Imagine my surprise, that this allegation has been levelled at the (now deceased) Bob.

    No wonder that Bob so fervently defended Roman Polanski – child rapist, and fugitive from justice.

    No wonder that Bob progressively deleted his own blog – where he defended not reporting a child rapist that “he knew” – could that have been one of his fellow “partygoers” at the Hewitt house?

    I do recall Bob referring to that child rapist that “he knew” as a mere “kiddy fiddler”… as if that nicer phrase somehow mitigates the crime.


    • Elisabeth July 1, 2018 at 5:18 pm #

      Something made me go through that Smoking Gun account of what happened to the girl and it sickens me to the pit of my stomach. The term ‘kiddy fiddler’, too. To me they are strong indicators that criminal abuse occurred. Whatever way you look at it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: