Roman Polanski's arrest has occasioned all sorts of name-calling and hand-wringing, but also some confounding aesthetic theory. In a feature called "The Polanski Uproar," The New York Times invited nine smart people to share their opinions on L'affaire Polanski. I should say eight smart people, as the only convincing argument put forth by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof is that Damon Lindelof is a jackass.
What's strange to me is that four of eight intelligent, educated adults try to divorce context from the art it produces. Here, they argue that personal morality has no bearing on the work an artist produces. Jay Parini's argument is the most extreme, and I'd like to focus on that.
"Can one really separate the art from the man or woman who creates that art? The answer is yes, definitely," Parini writes. He later cites Picasso and Wagner of two examples of flawed men--Picasso was a misogynist, though Parini avoids the term, and Wagner a raging anti-Semite--whose art transcends their creator's foibles. In his words, "being an artist has absolutely nothing — nothing — to do with one’s personal behavior."
Yet no one would ever argue that Ayn Rand's political beliefs didn't inform her art, or that Oscar Wilde's sexuality is is irrelevant to the study of his.* Those are personal behaviors. It's only when the artist in question has failings that the art gets divorced from its creator. Think about it: have you ever seen Ian MacKaye's music discussed separately from his political convictions? It wouldn't even make sense to do so.
And so, just as MacKaye and his collaborators ideas about community inform his art, Wagner's fascism shaped the way he conceptualized and composed music. We'd need a great deal more context to understand why Wagner was a fascist who hated Jews--besides, Theodor Adorno's In Search Of Wagner is smarter on the subject than I could ever hope to be. These whys are ultimately more important questions, but we shouldn't forget that art is made by specific people whose prejudices, lapses, and beliefs are wrapped up in their works.
Prince Rogers Nelson was a werido libertine who had a very unique understanding of human eroticism; Prince wrote the songs "Sister," "Let's Pretend We're Married," and "Erotic City." How do you separate those?
*An artist can't, of course, determine how people will interpret her art, and surely is not conscious of everything that goes in to a work