Tag Archives: Dorothy Hewitt

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Why we can and should make up our own minds about the Bob Ellis allegations.

12 Jun

 

It doesn’t come as any surprise to discover that “Australian arts luminaries,” among them journalist, screenwriter, novelist and passionate Labor supporter Bob Ellis, allegedly sexually assaulted the young daughters of playwright Dorothy Hewitt. That this disclosure does not surprise (though it certainly horrifies) is in itself a cause for anger and sorrow.

That the assaults took place in the girls’ home and apparently with the acquiescence of both their mother and their father, adds another dimension of horror to a story that is sickeningly familiar in every demographic, and every time and place.

When such atrocities are disclosed, a common reaction is that we should let the courts decide who is telling the truth, and remember that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence. In this case, some of the alleged perpetrators are dead, including Bob Ellis, and some are still living.

In an ideal world, if the law and the courts dealt at all fairly with victims of sexual assault, I’d agree that we should, if possible, leave the courts to determine innocence or guilt. But the justice system does not fairly deal with victims of this crime, as this article by Jane Gilmour explains. Rape victims who do report to police often describe the criminal justice system as “retraumatising.” 

When the alleged perpetrators are dead, there’s no possibility of legal redress. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t decide who we believe. For example, I find the stories of Rozanne and Kate Lilley credible. I don’t find the suggestion that they’ve made the whole thing up in the least bit credible. Therefore, I exercise my right to decide whom to trust, and I trust the Lilley sisters.

The sisters have already become targets for social media trolls. They are “claiming to be victims,” it’s alleged.  Well, no, they aren’t. They are simply telling their story. That story reveals hideous abuse and exploitation of two girls aged 13 and 15, by a group of celebrated and creative people who ought to have known better, and ought to have cared. They ought to have cared. And they didn’t. They wanted sex with children. So they had sex with children. Their creative accomplishments did not entitle them to have sex with children. The “bohemian” lifestyle they lived did not entitle them to have sex with children.

Yesterday I read on social media the opinion that because Ellis is dead, the sisters should have kept quiet. What this said to me is that to some people, living women matter so very, very much less than dead men. Since when does a man’s (or woman’s) notability entitle him or her to have their crimes and misdemeanours concealed by their victims?Since when must victims of notable people keep quiet, simply because the alleged perpetrator is notable?

I don’t know what these disclosures will do the legacy of Bob Ellis and feminist icon Dorothy Hewitt. Of far more concern to me is the wellbeing of Kate and Rozanne Lilley. Speaking out about sexual assault is an ordeal for anyone. That ordeal is inevitably compounded when the alleged perpetrators are public figures, or figures admired and respected in the community.

It’s something of a cop-out, I’d suggest, to respond to the sisters’ account of Ellis’s sexual predations with clichés about justice and the courts. We can decide if the story is credible without direction from a justice system that all too often miserably fails victims of sexual crimes. We can trust our own judgement and furthermore, we should have the courage to trust our own judgement. And having trusted ourselves, we can then decide how disclosure of alleged abhorrent sexual behaviour affects our feelings about the work of Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen, Bob Ellis, Morgan Freeman, Dorothy Hewitt, Junot Diaz and the rest of the lengthening list of creative stars who stand so accused.

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: