Artistic talent and crime

By Legal Eagle

Via Jason Soon’s Sick of Politics blog I came across an interesting piece by Clive Hamilton on talented artists who commit crimes. Like Jason, I think it’s probably the first time I’ve been in unqualified agreement with Clive. Wonders will never cease.

Hamilton says:

Should artistic talent place those who possess it above the law? Put this way, no one would answer in the affirmative, yet many artists and intellectuals argue as if genius exists in a different moral universe.

Two recent cases – those of the filmmaker Roman Polanski and the painter Donald Friend – reveal how the misdeeds of the artist can be whitewashed by those who want to protect the purity of their artistic creations. The cases are especially instructive because the misdeeds involve crimes against children.

According to the 1977 indictment, Polanski lured a 13-year-old to a photoshoot then plied her with alcohol and a sedative before raping and sodomising her. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges then absconded.

Yet for Polanski’s defenders, he is the victim in this affair. Evincing no concern for the effects on the girl, Levy expatiates instead on the “humiliation” and “persecution” Polanski has had to suffer, a “nightmare” in which he has been “treated like a terrorist”.

The apologetics reflect a curious feature of the human psyche, our penchant for projecting our love of an artistic creation onto the creator. …

It’s funny to think that if the person who had committed the crime was a sports person, the people who are defending Polanski and Friend would probably be calling for gaol time and better education of sports stars and an entirely different group would be defending their behaviour. I would ask the defenders of Polanski and Friend to imagine that the same acts were committed by a baseball legend, or a soccer star…and ask them what their response would be in that case. Does it change their view if a person has a talent which they do not particularly admire?

But this debate also illustrates a phenomenon which interests me: the placing of heroes on pedestals. Heroes (whether sporting or artistic) must be flawless. Sometimes we achieve this by shutting our eyes to their obvious flaws, or seeking to excuse their flaws. Perhaps that explains the desire of friends to excuse bad or even criminal behaviour. When there is a fall from grace, it is total and merciless. Witness the fall of Tiger Woods. From an exemplar in the sport of golf, he is now the butt of jokes, dumped by many sponsors. His exquisite talent at the game of golf has not changed. He has not done anything criminal. But the image of him as the perfect family man been sullied forever, and people’s disappointment in this has been palpable.

It’s important to remember that heroes are ordinary people too. No one can be perfect, and everyone has flaws. I don’t think we should expect our heroes to be better than the average person (I’ve never bought this idea that sports stars are “role models” so they have to be flawless). On the other hand, I don’t think we should seek to excuse our heroes for conduct which we would decry if it were committed by an ordinary person. This is particularly the case if the alleged conduct is criminal, and in the case of Polanski and Friend, led to the harm of young children. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all equal before the law, and there are no excuses, whether one is a great artist, a great sports star or just an ordinary joe.

[UPDATE BY SL: Pavlov’s Cat (some time ago) discussed this in relation to swimmer Nick D’arcy, but her comments thread became a very interesting general discussion of our ‘heroic’ moral expectations of a range of different occupations, from fiction writers to serving military personnel, and how untenable those expectations often are].


  1. Posted January 14, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    After reading it, and finding that I agreed with most of Hamilton’s points, it felt disturbingly like the time I astounded myself by agreeing with an Andrew Bolt column.

    I don’t know which freaks me out more.

  2. BirdLab
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    “I don’t know which freaks me out more”

    I agree. The thought that Andrew Bolt has occassional moments of sanity is truly disturbing.

  3. Posted January 14, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    On Polanski, it is hard to go past this piece from The Nation:

    The widespread support for Polanski shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening, fatuous worst. They may make great movies, write great books, and design beautiful things, they may have lots of noble humanitarian ideas and care, in the abstract, about all the right principles: equality under the law, for example. But in this case, they’re just the white culture-class counterpart of hip-hop fans who stood by R. Kelly and Chris Brown and of sports fans who automatically support their favorite athletes when they’re accused of beating their wives and raping hotel workers.
    No wonder Middle America hates them.

  4. Posted January 14, 2010 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    On heroes on pedestals, remember Frank Herbert’s little poem from Dune Messiah

    Here lies a toppled god —
    His fall was not a small one.
    We did but build his pedestal,
    A narrow and a tall one.

  5. Posted January 14, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Even after all this time I don’t quite understand how trackback works — but I blogged about this a while back when swimmer Nick D’Arcy was being banned from the Olympic team for slugging whatsisname in the bar. There’s some interesting stuff in the comments thread.

  6. John H.
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    He can run but he cannot hide:

    Roman Polanski sues French media for invasion of privacy

  7. see below
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    The phenomenon discussed is what Lord Atkin meant when he talked about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

    He was talking about us (or more specifically historians), not the powerful.

  8. Posted January 14, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    The other thing that’s relevant here (in a legal sense) is the widespread misunderstanding of the victim’s statement to the effect that she ‘wants the charges dropped’.

    This is not how the criminal law works; one does not ‘settle’ (as in civil law). Serious crimes like this are prosecuted not because they are injurious to the victim, but because they are injurious to society at large. Her personal wishes do not come into it, and nor should they.

    It is this very basic understanding that now means — in domestic violence cases in particular — a married woman victim is no longer given the option of ‘dropping the charges’, instead being declared a hostile witness (on application by the Crown) and forced to testify. Why there was ever an exception to the general run of criminal law on this I will never know; there never has been on the Continent. It is a peculiarity of the common law.

  9. Posted January 14, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    I keep seeing impassioned blogs asking why all the support for Polanski “the artist” but I have to search hard to find any defenders of Polanski.

    I certainly don’t find any in ev eryday ordinary life offnet.

    As for agreeing with Bolt/Hamilton (two of a kind – three if you toss in Deveny) it pains me to invoke a cliche “even a broken clock is right twice a day”

    Disclaimer: It doesn’t really pain me to invoke a cliche

  10. Posted January 14, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    oh and yes wot skepticlawyer said +1

  11. Posted January 14, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    not to mention that the phrase “to invoke a cliche” is in itself a cliche

  12. Posted January 14, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    as is “not to mention”

  13. Posted January 14, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    One of those days, fxh?

  14. melaleuca
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    The most rapturous applause I’ve ever heard was when the plodding and forgettable Liam Neeson put in a personal appearance at a premier thingie I attended for the film “Michael Collins”. I almost walked out on principle. As I understand it actors and most other artsy types had a status only marginally above that of whores and used-horse salesmen in medieval times. For the most part they got it right I reckon.

    But whenever anyone sensibly suggests these so-called heroes should be thrown off the public teat all the usual lefty artsy fartsy types belch and hiss in outrage.

  15. Posted January 14, 2010 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    “one of those days” is a cliche

  16. Posted January 14, 2010 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m wondering whether there is a difference between the psych of mainstream v “stuck in a garret” artistic types who don’t have the pedestal.

    But the problem of what would dissuade creatives from violent and/or sexual behaviour is very different from that of sports stars.

    Being anti-spectator-sports apart from things stemming from my birthplace, family friends and work history (go cats!), and recognizing that sports stars generally have high androgen levels that help performance, and androgen levels might well correlate with sexual impropriety and/or violence, with sports types, the threat of anti-androgen therapy to curtail the misbehaviour would be a real threat, as it would also remove any chemical advantage over normal people.

    But what of artistics types? If their misbehaviour, presumably not caused by testosterone poisoning, relates to brain structures, then a quick lesion or two can again solve the problem. Better than a poke in the eye with a pointy stick…. oh, wait a minute, it IS a poke in the eye with a pointy stick.

    (And no, I’m not seriously arguing for such punishments… just couldn’t resist the possible tie-ins)

  17. Posted January 15, 2010 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve never liked people apologising for sportsmen behaving badly.

    “Well what do you expect from young testosterone-filled men with access to expensive booze?”

    I expect them to obey the damn law, like everyone else. That is the whole point of having laws.

  18. Ken N
    Posted January 15, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Yes LE, those lawn bowlers can get nasty with a few beers in them.

  19. Posted January 16, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] On lawn bowls and “I can’t imagine him getting involved in a punch up.”
    Why bother with a punch up when a strategically directed bowl can take out a walking stick?

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