Say! Anyone heard about this Polanski thing? It turns out that it really, really, really sucks! And, in case you were unfamiliar with the precise details of its sucking, I wrote a bit about it in over at the Atlantic’s Culture Channel for you. Specifically, on the subject of “artistic freedom.”
The people who stayed by Polanski, to increasing public denunciation, were artists—primarily people in film. A petition demanding his release framed the whole issue as a violation of artistic freedom: “It seems inadmissible to [us] that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him,” it read. Signatories included Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, along with a mind-numbingly long list of other directors and actors. (When Wes Anderson released his first children’s film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, in November, its delicate whimsy was somewhat marred by the suspicion that the director would have pardoned someone for molesting a member of its target audience, should that molester have the right resume.)
Writer Bernard Henri-Levy issued a steady stream of pro-Polanski statements, and another petition, this time with signatures by Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie. Debra Winger accused the Swiss government of “philistine collusion,” said that “whenever this happens”—”this,” you would think, being pretty rare—”the whole art world suffers,” and expressed her anticipation for Polanski’s “next masterpiece.”
Conservative commentators, eager to spin another story about clueless Hollywood liberal elites, picked up the story and ran with it, and soon it was the ruling narrative: Slobs vs. snobs, aesthetes vs. philistines, the elite vs. the common folk, people who liked movies vs. people who thought convicted criminals ought to go to jail.
So, here’s the question nobody was asking: How does this relate to Buttman? Well! In more ways than you’d think, actually. Top Buttman trial-coverer and excellent blogger Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I will tell you how!
SADY: Hey! You know what feminist blogs haven’t discussed, ever: Roman Polanski.
AMANDA: Nope. Kind of just let that one go. It’s been so long, after all!
SADY: Right! If there’s one thing I can say for us all, it is that a very famous dude sexually assaulting someone, confessing, being convicted and serving NO SENTENCE WHATSOEVER for this is something that we all just kind of let fade, after a certain point.
AMANDA: That, or convicted criminals who have fled the country gradually gain points for stamina. I think that’s a legal thing. Particularly if they spend their 30-year European vacation doing things like making fancy movies!
SADY: Hah, yeah. This is the thing that kind of enrages, about the Polanski thing: The way so many folks were like, “but… he made MOVIES? They were really good!” And I won’t deny that those were some really good movies. And that they benefited from having Roman Polanski direct them. The non-Polanski directed sequel to “Chinatown,” for example, is just not so good! (Although, you know, kudos to Jack Nicholson for trying. And for not being convicted of rape.)
AMANDA: Generous points for that last detail. But like, how good do the movies have to be for people to excuse the rapist? As you pointed out in your piece, it’s not like this happens all that often, but I’m betting that a lot of people would be willing to forgive people who make less than “Pianist” levels of art. Even saying that is ridiculous. THEY’RE MOVIES. Not people!
SADY: Right. I mean, if Tommy “The Room” Wiseau were convicted tomorrow, I doubt we’d be seeing these outpourings of sympathy. Although folks did rally around R. Kelly during his trial, which makes me think that the question is not how good one is, but how famous one is. If it were some random “Law and Order: SVU” directing alumnus, we wouldn’t be here. But Le Cause de Polanski has always been framed as this issue of the permissive/enlightened European sophisticates/degenerates versus The Hard-Working Moralistic American People. Which is a take that’s been encouraged by both sides, and ends up serving neither.
AMANDA: So there’s a little bit more fame-mongering in Bernard-Henri Lévy’s free-Polanski intellectualism than he’d like to admit, is what you’re saying.
SADY: Oh, goodness me oh my, yes. I mean: How immeasurably has Levy’s profile been raised, now that he’s A-Number-One Polanski supporter in the public eye and/or the on the Huffington Post? And I’m sure he’d feel above all that, to some degree, but I don’t understand why he keeps publishing on the philosophically enlightened and sophisticated HuffPo if he’s not eager to get his name out there. I mean, maybe he just feels passionate about this cause, but I feel that demeans him MORE than a desire for HuffPo readership. Which is not something I say often!
AMANDA: I have several original Huffington Post nipple slips in my collection. So I’m covering this obscenity case in D.C. right now, and it’s funny how the “art” argument worms its way into the legal pornography debate as well. These jurors have to decide if there’s any redeeming artistic or literary or scientific value to the copious milk enemas they’ve viewed over the course of the trial. And so on cross-examination, the defense is asking witnesses stuff like, “And are you aware that the Adult Video News Awards are the Academy Awards of the adult entertainment industry?” “And are you aware that Buttman has won several of these awards?”
SADY: I SEE.
AMANDA: The whole thing is ridiculous. Like, I’m not against obscenity. But take the absurd “art” defense out of it.
SADY: Right. I mean: That’s the thing. Like the Tamburlini/Rivers case that was being reported earlier this week. In that case, you could maybe make a more convincing argument for “artistic value” — an Artist, Recognized As Such, was coercing and pressuring his daughters into participating in uncomfortably sexual video shoots! For his Art! — but we’re still not assuming that Art has the right to involve harm to actual human beings in the process of its creation. A person coerced and pressured his daughter into sexual activity, to which she objected. In the case of “obscenity,” which is always tricky — even Dworkin didn’t fully support banning porn under “obscenity” laws — the Art question can be brought up in defense, however. If it was relevant for Joyce, it’s relevant for Buttman, sad to say. Which is what’s so infuriating about this: Often, as in the Max Hardcore case, what’s being prosecuted is sexual abuse of performers. And then people are like “obscenity laws are unconstitutional; why didn’t these performers bring their cases to court?” Whereas if they did, as sex workers, they’d be slut-shamed and devalued and wouldn’t stand a chance of winning.
AMANDA: That’s true. The tricky thing is when there is legitimate abuse of performers (as in the Rivers case) and then the dissemination of the work in effect constitutes more abuse. Which, again, in any of these cases, the art argument only serves to obscure the issue, right? Are you producing these works with full consent and participation of everyone involved? Or are you abusing people, and filming that? In either case, it doesn’t really matter to me if there’s zero artistic value there or if it’s fucking Shakespeare abusing his kids for “art.”
SADY: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, I think our conception of Artist as Special Person who is obliged or privileged to Stand Outside Of Societal Norms is useful, in some respects. In the respects that you can’t just send D.H. Lawrence packing because he uses the fuck-word a lot, or you can’t shut down Mapplethorpe because he’s showing these queer BDSM images. But it’s abused so easily by folks for stuff like the Polanski case, or the Rivers one — the Polanski case being even more indefensible because SEXUALLY ASSAULTING THAT GIRL HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ANY OF HIS MOVIES — to argue that These People Can’t Be Held To Normal Standards.
AMANDA: Right. It also ends up being really elitist, or in Polanski’s case, both elitist and celeb-focused. Like, hey, what if I’m a really shitty artist who works with queer BDSM imagery?
SADY: And I have to admit, most of my off-the-top-of-the-head associations with Artists who we have to Defend Against Charges of Obscenity because they’re just outside the norm have to do with very famous men. Kathy Acker, maybe? But maybe not. I don’t recall court proceedings, but that may just be the result of insufficient Googling.
AMANDA: Yeah. I mean, the art test is a really fucked up standard for obscenity law in my opinion. Like things we determine to be “good” and things we determine to be “bad” just balance each other out, naturally? And I think the Polanski case is some sort of bizarre extension of the logic—that if art is good enough, it can make anything tolerable. And maybe if Polanski starts making really shitty movies, everyone will have to be like, “Alright, lock him up,” on principle.
SADY: Right. And it might just be a case of removing the quality of the art from the equation: Like, if we’re testing whether the art in question is “obscene,” that can apply to any kind of art with any kind of behind-the-scenes process. As a person who watches the extremely sophisticated Bravo program “Work of Art,” I know this. BUT, if we make the question whether the creation and distribution of the “art” (????) objectively has to harm in order to be produced, we can actually legislate on the level of production, not content. And no-one will ever be able to say that this glorious painting made with the entrails of their Gramma deserves serious consideration ever again. I mean, yeah, we should protect “artists” against petty common morality charges. DUR. But “please don’t rape anybody” isn’t petty. Nor, sad to say, all that terribly common.