Can Moral Monsters Make Good Movies?

On March 10, 1977, Roman Polanski, director of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, drove 13-year-old Samantha Jane Gailey to the home of Jack Nicholson, where Polanski had promised to take some pictures for Vogue magazine. Polanski gave her a Quaalude and told her to remove her clothes to join him in Nicholson’s jacuzzi. Before the night was over, Polanski had raped her. In 1979, he pled guilty to statutory rape, but fled to France before sentencing.

In 2003, Polanski won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Pianist. As recently as October 2017, the Cinematheque Francaise honored him with a retrospective of his work. In Polanski’s case, the entertainment industry has followed the axiom of Oscar Wilde: “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.”

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C. K., and others haven’t been so lucky. Weinstein has been expelled from the Academy. House of Cards was cancelled and Spacey was scrubbed from an upcoming film, All the Money in the World. Criminal investigations have been launched. The perpetrators have disappeared into therapy.

Things have changed, but have they changed for the better? Should we despise movies made by despicable men? Are we right to direct the same moral outrage at the art as we do against the artist? Should we, as Claire Dederer put it, feel “a little urpy” when we see Woody Allen dating a teenaged Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan? Who’s right—the aesthetes or the moralists?

Wilde has his sophisticated defenders, not all of them libertines. In Creative Intuition, Jacques Maritain quotes Wilde’s aphorism while drawing a distinction between artistic skill and the virtue of prudence. Art is, in Aristotelian terms, “making” (poiesis) not “doing” (praxis); the first is the realm of craft, the second the realm of ethics. The good of making doesn’t lie in the maker or in what art does to a reader or viewer. The good of art is internal to the art, in the quality of the thing itself. A well-made object is good even if it has evil effects, and a vicious artist can be true to his art. As Maritain says, “If only he contrives a good piece of woodwork or jewelry, the fact of a craftsman’s being spiteful or debauched is immaterial.”

But Maritain isn’t a straightforward disciple of Wilde. Art, he says, shouldn’t be subordinated to extra-artistic aims, whether manipulative propaganda or sincere religious instruction. Yet beauty can’t finally be separated from truth and goodness. While philosophy rightly isolates “art in itself,” in reality art “exists in a human being—the artist.”

Art is an activity of intelligence rather than will, and so it responds to what is real and makes claims about reality. While recognizing that art trades in fictions, we still need to ask whether those fictions are true.

Similarly, moral “ineptitude . . . can easily spill over into other ineptitudes.” Artistic “virtue” can itself be a moral defect that undermines art. An artist might, Maritain suggests, “endeavor to taste all the fruits and silts of the earth, and will make curiosity or recklessness in any new moral experiment or vampiric singularity his supreme moral virtue, in order to feed his art.” Rowan Williams offers the example of a narcissistic artist who misshapes his materials to indulge in sheer self-expression. His art is flawed because it aims at something other than the good of the artistic product. Williams concludes that we cannot evade making the moral and metaphysical  judgment of “whether a world laid before us by an artist is desirable for the kind of creatures we know ourselves to be.”

Neither Maritain nor Williams wants to impose external moral criteria on art. Instead, knowing that the artist is a monster should make us alert to traces of monstrosity within the work.

The apparently common-sensical distinction between “doing” and “making” isn’t as clear as it may seem. For Aristotle, the effects of praxis adhere to the doer, while the effects of poiesis go beyond the maker. Action forms the character of the actor. Makers make things that wander off to make their own way in the world.

Since we are social creatures, though, the distinction is a blurry one. Our actions are never entirely our own and have effects, often unanticipated, on others. Actions (e.g., speech) are products, and all making is a kind of doing. Aristotle was right to say we are what we do. We are also what we make, and what we make is inescapably bound to who we are.

In a collaborative art like film-making, artists don’t work in isolation. A cynic might conclude that Polanski was excused because the entertainment industry is full of Polanskis who protect their kind. A softer cynicism would note that artistic communities develop habits that affect the life and work of individual artists. Hollywood has long given film artists permission to live and make in ways that are not desirable for creatures made in the image of God.

This doesn’t mean that the connection between artist and art, between filmmaker and film, is transparent or simple. Good people make cringingly bad movies, and we should acknowledge the artistic skill evident in movies made by monsters. Give Wilde his due: Art is a prodigal who wanders far from home. Still, even a prodigal son bears a family resemblance to his father.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute

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