Le blog de Lise Bouvet
My speech at FILIA 2018:
« #MeToo and the fall of idols: about the beginning of the end of impunity for criminal artists. »
©Lise Bouvet 2018
« So my name is Lise Bouvet, as you can hear I am French, I am a philosopher, a political scientist and a feminist author. I am also a voluntary translator for the abolitionist collective « Ressources Prostitution« . I am very honoured to speak at FILIA today and I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart the wonderful team of women whose remarkable work allows us to be here together today. I have been a feminist activist for over 20 years now, and I know – almost painfully – to what extent the women’s movement depends on women’s time, on women’s labour, in joy as in sorrow. For so much love and dedication, I am endlessly grateful.
This year, my first book has been published, on the impunity enjoyed by powerful men, whether artists or politicians, notably pedo-criminal filmmaker Roman Polanski. It is called Untouchables: people, justice and impunity, and is co-written with lawyer Yael Mellul. Today I would like to share with you my thoughts about this impunity of criminal artists, especially filmmakers, which the #MeToo movement has begun to put an end to, especially because it started at the heart of the film industry, with the denouncing of a major Hollywood producer.
How and why pedo-criminals such as Woody Allen or Roman Polanski have been praised worldwide and almost washed of their crimes for nearly half a century? In the name of what? How does this way of thinking work? On what sociocultural mechanisms is this defence based? I will try to deconstruct the arguments put forward by the unconditional worshippers of these filmmakers.
Let’s start at the beginning by analyzing what Allen and Polanski’s defenders are telling us. They are basically telling us that these men are not litigants like the others, nor really men like the others, because they are accomplished authors. According to them, one cannot really judge these men because they are great artists, because they have created an extraordinary work. First, there is a suspicious logical connection between their talent (which is undeniable) and its relationship to the criminal justice system. Listening to Polanski’s defenders, especially in France where the film industry is very elitist and authorist, one would almost believe that he is a unique being, in short, that one cannot do without him and that it is out of the question that we could consider him losing a day of his precious life in prison.
But who gets to decide about this extraordinary social utility? Let’s take an example: in the middle of winter, when we are cold, and our heater breaks down, who can do without a good plumber? We would surely be very angry if our excellent plumber went to prison for the rape of a 13-year-old girl in the middle of winter, but the law is so made in a democracy that even exceptional and indispensable professionals are, like all other citizens, liable to the same penalties for the same crimes. Nevertheless, let us try to go further in this comparison. Polanski’s defenders would oppose us, that indeed it would be unfortunate that our highly competent heating engineer were imprisoned in the middle of winter at the time of our heater’s breakdown when it is very cold, but that, certainly even with difficulty, we would be able to find another competent professional, while nobody else in the world makes films like Roman Polanski or Woody Allen.
Thus, they make a point: indeed, one can say that the particularity of the artist, and of a gifted filmmaker, is that, unlike the shoemaker or the baker, he produces a unique work. In our capitalist and industrial society, the artist is considered exceptional because he creates something non-reproducible and out of fixed market value, an object in total contradiction with all the others, which would be likely to give him an almost sacred status. We must therefore examine the underlying link between the work of art’s status and that of the artist.
In a fascinating essay (1), « From the humanization of divine creation to the divinization of human creation. » (De l’humanisation de la création divine à la divinisation de la création humaine), art historian Lucile Roche brilliantly analyses this theme of the god-artist in modern aesthetic theory in the West. She writes: ‘’It is then in its distance from the divine model in favour of a refocusing on the artist, subjected only to the whim of his views and teleological requirements, and focused on his own creative abilities – originality, imagination – that the analogy Artist-God and God-Artist closes. An inexhaustible creativity source of which he is the sole source, the romantic artist is part of the divine (with whom he shares the ex-nihilo) without submitting to it. In his humanity, the artist is then, paradoxically, deified.’’ It’s all said and done: the die-hard defenders of authors such as Allen and Polanski are caught up in an outdated social representation that carries a deeply romantic vision of the artist, which will be illustrated by this sentence from Victor Hugo: « Art is to man what nature is to God ». If these men are at the gods’ level then they escape the justice of men, here is the fundamental unthought of the defenders of Polanski, Woody Allen and other criminal artists, not only guardians of their social castes and its corollaries impunities (impunity of men and the powerful), but especially, according to us, bogged down in outdated conceptions of art, which are put at the service of this impunity.
In a recent interview, the art theorist Carole Talon-Hugon (2) shed light on these unthoughts around the artist: « A rape committed by an anonymous person and a rape committed by an artist are both the same thing – because the crime is just as reprehensible – and not the same thing. Because he is an example, the artist enjoys a special status in society. At least since the 18th century. At that time, we were starting to consider art as a separate field, totally distinct, subject only to the rule of beauty and independent from the question of good. Thus, for Diderot « there is a moral proper to artists that can be in reverse of the usual moral ». This idea can be found in Oscar Wilde’s (19th century) or André Breton’s work (20th century). The artist then becomes a « wild and singular individuality, in rupture, in opposition and totally independent of ordinary morality ». This image, built over more than 200 years, prevents us from facing the reality of these assaults. It is here that the emperor appears naked: in profound contradiction with our democratic values, artists have become the new aristocracy above the laws. By consecrating some to the detriment of others, the community of citizens is abdicated, and it is said that there are values superior to human life. Our role as feminists is to perpetuate the effects of what was initiated by #MeToo, that set in motion a healthy social movement to get rid of these rotten idols, including by taking on the desecration of art and artists. Basically, it is time to stop giving into confusions that only serve sex offenders whom profession is to be artists. It is not because, for a few centuries in the West, art has been thought and affirmed as a distinct and independent domain, notably of society, that this autonomy grants a particular political status to artists. Moreover, this aestheticism has been challenged by many 20th century artists such as the communist play righter B. Brecht and especially women and feminist artists of the Second Wave. Thus, not only is it more than debatable that art can claim to exist outside any social or political sphere, but even so, what could apply to works of art does not logically concern artists at all, especially those who use their work or their talent to guarantee themselves criminal impunity. The art world may pretend to escape morality, good for it, but in no way can artists use it to escape the law and the justice system.
We now understand that the underlying thesis of « Polanski’s friends » is that this man’s exceptional talent should be able to transcribe itself into an exceptional derogatory political status. It will be noted with irony that these people often claim to be left-wing, while carrying a feudal vision of a society where the talent and status of some would grant them special rights over others and their bodies, let alone minors. This position is all the more fragile when one understands that the requests for exceptionality of treatment for the filmmaker Roman Polanski are based on conceptions discussed as debatable art theories. And after all, Polanski’s or Woody Allen’s friends have a right to hold on to a particular theory that we do not share. What is indisputable, however, is that we live in a political system in which artists, however gifted they may be, are citizens and citizens like the others. We hear that Polanski’s fans cannot do without the pleasures that his talent brings them. However, only the judiciary as an independent institution can say whether Roman Polanski should spend another day in prison. And from the moment he has fled the legitimate court about to try him and we are asked for our assent and our audience, it is our right, as the public, to grant it or refuse it. Roman Polanski has the strict right to do what he wants, since he is free in Europe, but from the moment he makes movies that the public is invited to see, it is necessary to accept that this public, or a part of it, refuses. The great unthought also present here is that the public is us. It is us who are asked to go see and applaud the Polanski or Woody Allen films. However, no one has to follow any injunction to remain silent or forget that a man praised to the skies is also a man who admitted to having drugged and then raped a young teenage girl, and who is accused of similar acts by other women. The impunity of these men rests largely on a conception not only of the demiurge artist, but of a passive and docile public in its reception of this sacred work, and as if, not by chance, these qualities cover the values traditionally associated with the masculine and the feminine… We see here that we are basically in a religious and reactionary way of thinking, paradoxically carried by « leftists ».
Another element of defence heard ad nauseam is the injunction to separate « the man » from « the artist ». But it is precisely because the « man » and the « artist » are one and the same person that we are constantly being ordered to separate them. But how is that possible? By what miracle? To « save » who or what? Creation is a complex and highly personal act: when Polanski starts directing, there is not another Polanski who arrives to make films and then leaves to make room for « the man », it is completely absurd. This irrational injunction of separation is a blind spot of thought, a dead angle, that in my opinion rests on a social taboo induced by an archaic conception of artistic creation. The presupposition here is « Kalos Kagathos », our pillar of Greek thought according to which Good and Beautiful are inseparably linked, which prevents us from imagining that one can be both a sex offender and a great artist. But art has long since become amoral in our contemporary societies and artistic creation is by no means antithetic to perverse activities (3). Further still, when the artist is a famous and powerful man, his very function as « director » places him even more in a position of power and predation over actresses who owe him everything (4). If we were to go to the end of this reasoning which consists in wanting to separate things, it would rather be the art that would detach itself from the artist, as Roland Barthes and structuralist thought suggest: « once his work is finished, the author is no longer bound to it. The art work exists by itself. (5) ». It is therefore urgent to leave creation, art and talent where they are, for what they are, that is to say, something other than a system for defending sex offenders. Just as the crimes committed by an artist do not detract from the quality of his work, so this work, in the name of his existence, does not confer any derogatory status to the artist, who, like any citizen, is subject to common law.
We can hear Polanski’s worshippers’ screams: ‘’but then, what is left of these wonderful films?’’
To add insult to injury, Chinatown, for example, is a film about incest and rape… We are here perhaps touching one of the greatest social injustice and the greatest male privilege: these men, not only rape with impunity, but then, of these rapes, make masterpieces, acclaimed, awarded and applauded. And, forever, it is the rapist’s masterpieces that will remain engraved in art history, while, dust, the devastated life of the victims will return to dust. This brings us to an important point about these directors’ movies, particularly pedo-criminals. Among the injunctions against us, there is the corollary prohibition not to judge the movies of the man whom we are urged not to condemn (particularly in France as denounced by the film critic Paul Rigouste (6). Yet, feminist critique has developed as an autonomous and academic theoretical field for a long time, including in France, thanks to Geneviève Sellier’s work. And of course, what grieves our devoted fans is that we can conduct a feminist film criticism of these men’s work. For example, an attentive viewing of Woody Allen’s films allows to notice his pedophile obsession for very young girls, just as it seems to me that Polanski faces very personal problems of crime and guilt in his work, and this, in an almost systematic way. By definition, the process of thinking and analysis cannot be limited, criticism must address art as a whole and it seems both implausible and counterproductive to limit the field of cinematographic studies by prohibitions under penalty of ‘’lèse genius’’. We must denounce this double injunction on which these criminals’ defense is based: not only would the judicial institution have no say under the pretext that they are artists, but their work would be immune from any reading in connection to their crimes, a reading which nevertheless seems to me very interesting from an art theory point of view. We have here the incredible opportunity to analyze the work of criminals who precisely do not hesitate to create from their own crime, so in the name of what would we deprive ourselves from this research? We must go frontally against the popular opinion: Not only can we not separate the man from the artist, as we have just seen, but it is specifically relevant here to link the artist to his crimes in order to study his work from his criminal activity, without of course reducing it.
Another very important point on this subject was raised in a stimulating article in the New York Times. Journalist Amanda Hess (7) suggests that to all the clichés’ users defending rapist artists and to the incantations to distinguish them from their works, one can object by referring to the existing relation between the artist and the industry which produces it, what seems particularly relevant for cinema which is indissociably an art and an industry. She rightly notes that the Hollywood machine’s artistic alibi has deprived itself of all the human resource infrastructure present in other major North American corporations, including sexual harassment laws enforcement, and thus allowed Weinstein to prosper with impunity. She adds that our habit to treat artists as creators transcending all materiality instead of ordinary economic agents protects them from the basic requirements of labour law, also making us forget that, as for any industrial product, movies are also consumption objects, made in specific conditions, the suffering and sexual assault of actresses being part of them. Finally, and as others did during the Weinstein scandal, instead of focusing on the now « soiled » art by their creators, we can also mourn all the talents that were destroyed by these attacking artists. The victims of Weinstein, Louis CK or others never saw their creativity blossom, never had the leisure to create their art (8). Perhaps we should ask ourselves about these shortcomings, too.
Another aspect that also seems important to me and needs to be considered in the analysis of these speeches defending criminal filmmakers, is the phenomenon of the wide public’s fascination for these abusers. Fascination rapists use to assert their defense, which of course can only benefit from confused feelings that must be deconstructed.
In La Photographie, art theorist André Rouillé makes a remarkable analysis of what a « star » is in our contemporary societies. Star in English means an object that shines, even in the night, and by extension the image of this aura that rests on the media exposure, which is also an optical exposure machine. The stars are apart beings, beings of light, glittering, illuminated in reality by the celebrity machine which, according to us, works on a fundamental ambivalence: these people are familiar to us, they look like us, but they are different, they live in a higher social sphere that arouses fear and respect. This situation of multiple levels of reflections allows movements of identification-evasion, a confusing but rewarding phenomenon, and above all, deeply dual. The public is caught in contradictory positions: men in a patriarchal context are tempted to identify with the famous and powerful accused, as the feminist philosopher Michela Marzano rightly notes, and women are trapped in several conflicts of allegiance. Who among us didn’t grow up laughing at Woody Allen movies or Bill Cosby shows? Who didn’t like Polanski’s movies or Morgan Freeman’s performances? They are familiar to us, they remind us of good memories, they are figures of attachment who have our a priori sympathy more than anonymous victims who, by their denunciations, are breaking these positive feelings. Let us be reminded here of what we now know about our social reflexes in the face of these denunciations. Researcher Judith Herman warns us that “it is very tempting to take the perpetrator’s side. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
We can observe it in each of us in these specific cases: there is a conflict between the citizen and the spectator. The citizen condemns the artist’s crimes, but the viewer wants to continue enjoying the criminal artist’s work. Because we loved these creations, because they are now part of our life, of our culture. Because the work of art is considered unique and its author is worshipped, because creators are the new gods of our secularized society. This resistance around the artist is certainly due to a powerful impregnation of art conceptions from the last centuries and contemporary neoliberal myths; the artist in capitalist mythology embodies at once the exceptional individual, freedom, transgression, moral exception, and a form of archaic sacred.
The only counterweight to these confusions enabling this untouchability of criminal men, the only authentic democratic force, is feminism. Only the feminist analysis of male domination in its functioning makes it possible to dismantle these hypnosis effects in order to demand strict equality of treatment between citizens. The main feature of the rapist’s discourse is the inverted presentation of reality; the feminist argument opposes it with a materialistic analysis in terms of revealed power relations, associated with a return to the world in an egalitarian order.
I will close this presentation, in which I have tried to face up to the arguments of the criminal filmmakers’ defenders, who, in my opinion, divert certain aesthetic concepts and take art both as an alibi and as a hostage. My conclusion here is that art and artistic creation have more to offer to the world than a system of defending pedo-criminal rapists.
I will leave you on a personal note: Like all of us I was not always a feminist. As a teenager, I passionately loved Woody Allen’s or Roman Polanski’s films and today the question of their re-viewing arises. I am at the front line to experience this conflict between the citizen and the viewer that I have analyzed, and in my case, it is a conflict between being an assiduous cinephile and an equally demanding feminist activist. A sister once told me that she had decided to no longer impose the works of rapists on herself, particularly because, as a survivor, she analyses them as elaborate perverse devices, which double the effects of hypnosis and confusion that I have mentioned. Adverse effects according to her, because women are once again ordered to remain passive, to dissociate themselves, to anaesthetize themselves as female spectators in order to escape yet another annihilation, thus reproducing the most fundamental patriarchal violence. I recognize that this is a very fair view and a consistent as coherent feminist position. I must admit that, for many years now t, I haven’t been able to watch any of these movies again, whose DVDs take dust on my living room shelves…
Thank you so much for listening to me! »