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At the end of The Great Dictator comes a marvellous speech. “The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow — into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us,” says Charlie Chaplin in character as a Jewish barber who just happens to look like Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of a nation resembling Germany of the Nazi-era. By all counts The Great Dictator is a fantastic piece of satire. It fulfils the needs of the comedy genre while simultaneously speaking truth to power. That Chaplin could do this when the United States was not yet a participant in the Second World War speaks to his great genius. But, he wasn’t a great man.
He married Lita Grey when she was 16 years old and divorced her when she was 18, all so he could avoid a statutory rape charge. Chaplin was 36 when he married her. Three of his four wives were below the age of 18. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert was allegedly based on Chaplin. In the post-Weinstein era, it feels hard to separate great work from their creators, though we manage to do so for many artists.
Caravaggio is known for his Baroque work and incorporation of chiaroscuro more than the murder he committed. Picasso’s many mistresses were treated shabbily by him and he is still celebrated as the founder of the Cubist movement. Wagner was an anti-Semitic racist who found himself a huge fan in Hitler, so much so that performance of his operas in Israel still faces protests. More recently, Dustin Hoffman, who along with Robert Redford inspired me to become a journalist through All the President's Men , turned out to be not only a fine actor, but a serial sexual predator himself. His actions were appalling and six victims have come forward. On the one hand, there are these allegations, and on the other, there are his performances in Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man and The Graduate.
To an extent, we find ourselves unable to make this distinction not because of the art itself, but because of everything else that we know. While the consumption of art is an individual incident, the celebration or castigation of the creator is a social event. The way we consume art has a performative aspect to it, now more than ever, with the democratised nature of our communication. And in this performance is encoded an acceptance that we like something that needs to be liked, because by itself that work of art needs or deserves celebrating.
Are we being arm-twisted by society into stigmatising our own personal relationship with pieces of art? Are we giving in to the pressure of the groupthink that decrees what piece of work we must dislike because its maker was not a stand-up human being? There is a rallying cry to make sure that an artist’s name is forever associated with his actions. And unfortunately, this demand is extended to the art too in an attempt at ensuring that the work is also forever tainted.
But shouldn’t art transcend the realm of human foibles, or should it be curtailed by those deeds? Should the fact that Lewis Carroll might have been a paedophile reduce the beloved stature that Alice in Wonderland has? Or, as I learnt while writing this, does Isaac Asimov’s alleged habit of groping women make the world he created any less awe-inspiring?
The obvious question is whether and in what way the art is affected by the artist. The deeper question we ask ourselves is whether it is moral to continue to consume a piece of art — whether it is acceptable to our self-perception as a ‘good person’ — without taking into account the horrible nature of the people who created them.
When sexual abuse allegations deluged U.S. film producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, a tipping point was reached, and a flood of empowered women began coming forth to reveal their own suppressed experiences of sexual misconduct, including the viral #MeToo phenomenon, and real-world consequences for a number of personalities, all over the world, and their projects.
The ramifications of The Weinstein Effect has left very few unaffected parties, art-lovers being the worst-hit.
Louis C.K.’s I Love you, Daddy was pulled from theatres after allegations about his sexual harassment surfaced. (Louis C.K.’s case in itself is an interesting study. Here is a man who made jokes about his need to masturbate and grope women, seemingly self-aware, who, as it turns out, did actually masturbate in front of women without their consent.) “Give the movie a chance,” is an oft-repeated phrase whenever the next powerful man in the movie business is accused of sexual assault. The logic offered for the argument is that are that there are multiple other people who have worked on a project, so the taint caused by a sexual predator is in effect washed away by the hard work of these good, honest people.
But, what if it isn’t that simple? Waiving the backlash meant for real-life sexual predators in favour of letting their art survive can delegitimise the victims’ nightmarish experiences. It could also perpetuate the notion that you can get away with anything provided you’re rich enough and have public eminence.
On the other hand, it needs to be acknowledged that a decision to purge artist-tainted art, while it may appear to be moral and ethical, does a disservice to the work of art, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We need to separate the art from the artist because a piece of art is, by nature, a separate entity.
In all this, an answer can be found at that corner of the Internet where online social justice has found a permanent home — Tumblr. There is a certain phrase for dealing with the dilemma that arises when a work of art we love is pitted against the reprehensible personality of the creator — ‘your fave is problematic’ [more than half of Tumblr’s users are under the age of 25, and hence, the language]. It just means staying aware of the creator’s horrendousness and compartmentalising it when consuming a piece of work.
When I first watched Good Will Hunting as a teenager, it spoke to me. I cried during the final scene, when both Matt Damon and Robin Williams’ characters break down. This is a movie I’ve watched many times over. And even now, with knowledge of Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour, the beauty of the movie, for me, remains.
To push this further, look at some of the other Miramax/Weinstein Company films. There was Sex, Lies and Videotape , a film I watched when I was beginning to think about sexuality and relationships. There was Pulp Fiction , which is a fun watch every single time. There was The English Patient , which is my favourite war film of all time (really). There was The Talented Mr. Ripley , which will remain the best psychological thriller for a long time to come (I’m willing to argue this forever). And there were the Grindhouse films, which made me fall in love with zombie horror films, no mean feat for a person who’d stayed away from the genre until then.
Over many years, we have been able to forgive many artists for their transgressions. As more predators have been unmasked, it can get difficult to separate the art from the artist. But it is an exercise worth doing, if for nothing else, at least for the art itself. While knowledge of the artist’s deeds is necessary (and rightly so), it doesn’t warrant letting that knowledge seep into our perception of the art.
The Great Dictator is a work of genius despite Chaplin’s personal life.