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The Case of Casey Affleck: Can and Should Art be Separated from the Artist?

ByImogen Herd

Jan 30, 2017

Content warning: sexual assault

Is it possible to judge a work as independent or as a separate entity from its creator, especially when the artist has behaved in an unforgivable manner? Can art ever really be separate? If an artist places so much of themselves consciously or not into their art, can we ever really separate the two? Casey Affleck is not the first caught up in this moral debate; Roman Polanski, the Oscar winner and admitted statutory rapist or Woody Allen with the alleged of sexual abuse against his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow are just a few who have raised the question.

The infamous allegations stacked up against Affleck derive mainly from the set of the 2010 hoax documentary I’m Still Here: The Lost Year of Joaquin Phoenix. The first suit came from Amanda White a producer on the film who had previously worked with Affleck for over ten years. Her accusations described a constant barrage of past sexual exploits, attempts to both psychologically and physically coerce her into staying in a hotel room with him and even ordering a male crew member to show her his genitals. In addition to White, Affleck was also accused of harassing Magdalena Gorka, who was also working on I’m Still Here as the director of photography. She described the experience as a “barrage of sexual comments, innuendos and unwelcome advances”. There were even claims that she was once awoken to Affleck in only a T-shirt and underwear in her bed caressing her back, while some of the crew stayed in Affleck’s and Joaquin Phoenix’s shared New York apartment. Affleck denied all allegations and countersued. The suits however were settled, to the apparent satisfaction of all involved.

There are perhaps as always, two unresolved sides on the matter. The first argues that, to an extent, one should separate art from the personal transactions of the artist; that both can be separate entities from each other. Perhaps the more convenient side of the two, as this allows one to not be inconvenienced and permits one to still comfortably consume the works of the said individual. This opinion also supports the claim that with the dawn of social media, a culture has developed where people quickly without facts or strong evidence come to firm judgements. Rumours and gossip are placed on a global stage, this maybe the case with Affleck that convictions are made with very little backing. Roman Polanski is a key example of how Hollywood can separate art from the artist: people don’t support what Polanski or Allen allegedly did, but should that prevent them from watching their films? It’s a vast moral question, without a clear answer.

However, the second side views society as having a larger responsibility to victims and survivors which surpasses the interests of the perpetrator or the accused, and as a statement of the unacceptability of such acts, art or media from the individual should not be heralded or consumed. It is almost making a physical statement that there are repercussions for such deeds. Should we act in radical ways in a means to help and support victims? Some may say what Affleck is accused of is not so bad, however is that not simply invalidating the experience or, to put it more aptly, ordeal of the victims as well as down-playing the very crime itself? To an extent, whether a celebrity likes it or not, they are held to a higher standard due to the influence and power they have in society.

However, this moral debate has become more intense as public opinion has become far less forgiving, especially with the rise of social media and the disconnect it manufactures. It has become almost a sport to rise up celebrities only rip them down on a public stage for the enjoyment of the masses. Thus the question always arises: what does it say about society if we do reward Affleck? If he is heralded, is that then a betrayal of loyalty to the victims? Manchester by The Sea, thus far, has earned over $38 million, whilst also earning both Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. This prompts the question of whether audiences would rather ignore the allegations rather than deal with difficult truths?

Some argue that to blacklist him now is pointless, rather it should occur earlier on in the process – such as with castings, if it were to make any profound effect. Many argue that if we were to look into every artists’ private lives then we would find things that may make us never want to watch their films again. We are avid consumers of culture, thus we constantly separate art from artist. In an almost wilful ignorance, we ignore what is uncomfortable so we can enjoy the entertainment in a very placid non-challenging way. Almost as if we do not care what is happening behind the curtain as long as the show carries on.

Due to our lack of personal relationships with artists, the art acts as a representation of them. Thus, often our judgement of the artist gets wrapped up in the opinion of the art work. Often causing artists to be let off, their sins ignored due to their works gaining popularity. However, I think that artists cannot be separated from their work, even if that would be a more convenient solution. Overall, celebrities and artists will always have higher expectations placed on them, but that is important because they have incredible power and influence. Whether or not Affleck should be blacklisted is perhaps a question without a satisfying answer, although I think we can no longer simply consume content with horse blinkers on to the more difficult reality. We have a larger and more important responsibility to the victims and survivors of such cases, perhaps we need to start putting them first; even if that is a far less comfortable road.


Image: Helga Esteb/Shutterstock Inc.

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