Experiencing Art: Can We Ignore the Artist for the Sake of the Art?

By: Brett Slaughenhaupt – Movie Columnist

Art has never been without controversy. From sexuality and nudity, to blood and gore – society has found reasons to protest and demean the product of art. This will always be the case for as long as constraints are placed on what is deemed moral or ethical.

Things take a different turn when it is no longer the art that is being judged, but the artist. Audiences are then faced with the decision of how to judge the art that results.

We have seen this happen in recent history with Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, Chris Brown, Woody Allen, and the list goes on.

Currently, the problem has found its way to Nate Parker, the writer, director, and star of “The Birth of a Nation.”

Coming off of a year that can be summed up with #OscarsSoWhite and an overall recognition of the systemic discrimination of minority figures in Hollywood, “The Birth of a Nation” was supposed to be the film to offer a different way. Not only was the cast and crew significantly made up of POC, but the content was that of the true story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the antebellum South.

It was sold for a record $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight after winning numerous accolades at Sundance Film Festival. Nate Parker and everyone involved with the film were looking at an extremely successful awards season ahead of him.

That was until his 1999 sexual assault case while in college at Penn State, of which he was acquitted, was brought back into the limelight.

What resulted was a slew of negative press and backlash from some public, press, and even the costar (and rape-survivor) Gabrielle Union. Statements about and by Nate Parker have since been released, in an attempt to gain control of the rhetoric surrounding the film.

By now it was too late. Similarly to the controversies with other celebrities, the story was not in the hands of the audience. It is now up to the general public to decide what to do with the information they have been given. It is a power with which they can choose to ignore or use to destroy one’s validity.

Therein lies the true question: is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Can we and should we ignore the wrongful acts of man – whether that be rape, racism, sexism, etc. – for the sake of experiencing their art?

Dr. Farrelly, the Director of Film Studies at the University of Dayton, holds “no sympathy for [Nate Parker’s] plight.” Just because Parker is a growing figure, he “doesn’t get a free pass and can’t expect protectionism.”

“Situations of rape always matter,” so Parker must address the issue. Farrelly remains critical of the fact that they seem to be trying to stray away from the negative publicity based on the film’s potential for winning Academy Awards.

However, he believes that we “can’t condemn him as a director” and that his history does not “lessen artistic achievements.” Forgiveness, Farrelly believes, must stem from holding oneself accountable. Paraphrasing Jesus, Farrelly concludes his beliefs with the quote, “which of you is without sin?”

Coming from a lens of sexual violence prevention education and LGBTQ+ support services on UD’s campus, Kristen Altenau Keen views choices, or “green dots” and “red dots”, as individual entities that accumulate to impact our community.

“As soon as you start talking about folks in the spotlight what’s challenging about it is that we don’t know them personally … we don’t actually know them as people.”

A recognition of their humanity, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, is essential to Catholic and Marianist values, Kristen says, and that is “an incredibly challenging balance. I don’t believe we can define anybody by one choice they’ve made, but they should be held accountable for their choices.”

Historically, part of the frustration connected to sexual assault cases stems from a lack of accountability. She believes that it is up to all of us to create a culture change. Progress will only come from “education and dialoguing and normalizing a united language and expectations.”

Jonathan McNeal, being directly involved in the business as a filmmaker and manager of Dayton’s The NEON, looks at the situation from a wider societal phenomenon where everyone knows each other’s stories.

“This informs how we view art before anyone has even seen it,” he says. From this, he poses the question of validation: who is to say that a response to art without prior knowledge to surrounding context (like Jonathan experienced “The Birth of a Nation” before the story broke) is any less valid than someone’s response being conscious of the context.

Either way they are bringing their own experiences and values to the art. The bottom line for him is that “we don’t know everyone’s story” nor can we. There’s a background to every painting and song and film you see, but you are only informed of some of them.  

In the end, Jonathan hopes that “people set aside their preconceptions and view the art for what it is. It is best to acknowledge issues, but art has value, regardless who makes it.”

There is no right or wrong answer to what art is or is not valid based on who makes it. This issue did not start with Nate Parker nor will it stop with him.

Until the world ends we will  have to confront issues of ethics and morality, but that is not a bad thing. The beauty of life and art is its subjectivity. It is through this reflection that our beliefs become stronger and better realized.

Will you be going to see “The Birth of a Nation” when it comes out?

Photo Courtesy of fameolous.com