A disgusting portrait of an 'artist'REX MURPHY
Artists are almost by definition exceptional communicators. So some of them have been very successful at pitching themselves as shamans and oracles, as splendid almost unearthly beings, radiant with truth and insight.
The mewlings of the international excuse-brigade over the arrest of Roman Polanski are diminishing in vigour and volume. This is not surprising. The storm of public protest and disgust toward the band of luminaries who claimed his arrest was "deplorable" and would hurt "the international arts community" couldn't be ignored, not even by those determinedly careless, sloppy minds.
With perhaps one exception -- that of Harvey Weinstein, the archetypal Hollywood producer, who is still arguing the bizarre thesis that on this subject, only "Hollywood has the best moral compass."
That noted, the public is past the astonishment and disgust phase of this numbing parable, though heads still shake in wonder that some very serious, intelligent people -- Salman Rushdie will do as a stellar example -- were willing to bypass the rape of a 13-year-old girl as merely an incident or a "youthful error" of the then 44-year-old sexual predator.
But it is still worthwhile to look at two facets of the story. Most of the pseudo-arguments or excuses focused on Roman Polanski's standing as an "artist" and made the claim that having shared his "genius" with the world he was exempt by virtue of his status and achievement from the rules and standards that rule the rest of us.
The claim is old, trivial and fallacious: that artists stand aside from the common run, and inhabit a private or specialized moral universe. Artists are a law and a world unto themselves. They are special -- better.
That claim of special status is one many artists have proposed for themselves. It's been predominant since the Romantic period but around since the days of the Greeks. Artists are the "antennae" of the race; they are the "unacknowledged legislators" of the world. They exist on a spiritual and perceptual plane higher than the rest of us, and are chosen or inspired conduits of wisdom and guidance. Seers and supermen. To presume therefore that they should bear the normal traffic of human life, adhere to the standards of the communities they depict or analyze in their works, is but the vulgar presumption of the envious and less gifted.
Of course, all this is utter tosh. Great painters, musicians and writers are really, really good at what they do. But outside their executive talents, they are as frail and fallible, as silly and strange as everybody else. Like all of the rest of the world, artists can be stupid or smart, generous or miserable, wide-minded or prejudiced. Talent is not a synonym for judgment. Ezra Pound wrote great poetry, but he was a fool and worse on politics and economics.
You are as likely to find common sense or decency in a carpenter, an engineer, a janitor or a teacher as in an artist. As likely, but no more. The spread of good and bad, stupid and smart is in equal proportion. But artists are almost by definition exceptional communicators. They have the power to confect the strongest images, the most seductive sounds or the most compelling words. So some of them have been very successful at pitching themselves as shamans and oracles, as splendid almost unearthly beings, radiant with truth and insight. The argument, such as it is, is either special-pleading or radical egotism. You will get as much wisdom in the back of a taxi as in the atelier.
The filmmakers who wanted to excuse Roman Polanski were riding this jaded horse of an idea. Roman is an artist. Ergo, he couldn't be a rapist, or conversely, if he is a rapist because he's an artist we must overlook his "diversions." The Muse must be fed, however creepily.
The second element comes out of the first. The word artist itself, since the high days of the Renaissance, has been defined ever downward, and at no time more precipitously than now. Today, if you can stir a bowl of soup (or photograph one -- a lesser skill), you may call yourself an artist. Leave a mock bomb at the ROM in Toronto and call it a performance art. Soak a crucifix in urine. Can your own excrement and sell it to galleries. Point a speculum at your vagina and invite the public to the viewing. It's all art, and those who perpetrate such stunts are "artists."
The word that designates Leonardo da Vinci and Beethoven cannot be the same word that covers some ill-co-ordinated puppet on stilts or the latest pop tart ululating her dream to be the next Madonna. If Michelangelo is an artist, we have to find another word for the director of The Fearless Vampire Killers.
So when his excusers hoist the banner of the word "artist" for Roman Polanski, they are aiming far too high for him, and far too low for it. He is an artist only in its most slovenly application, and even if he were a full, blazing genius of an artist, the category offers no protection or excuse for what he so gruesomely did.
Rex Murphy, "A disgusting portrait of an 'artist'." Globe & Mail (October 3, 2009).
Reprinted with permission of Rex Murphy.
Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column, Japes of Wrath, for the Globe & Mail.
Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism -- delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers -- that makes Points of View a must-read."
Copyright © 2009 Rex Murphy
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