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Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan and Roman Polanski: Separating Art from the Artist

Jul 16, 2010 | 4:32am EDT

Separating Art the Artist: Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan and Roman Polanksi

Mel GibsonLet’s face it, these have been a rough few weeks for some of Hollywood’s most notorious personalities. In tabloid shockers that have bled over into mainstream news (not just the fluff stuff, but the real, honest-to-God news agencies as well), three of the most disliked public figures ended up front and center, competing for space on the home page of TMZ. Of course I’m talking about Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski. In three consecutive stunners, Lindsay went to jail, Roman didn’t and tapes of Mel surfaced, proving long-held accusations of racism and a temper that could blister paint off of a wall. And, as expected, a number of outlets lined up to take their potshots.

But the question is this: Does this mean we can’t watch their movies anymore?

I’ve loved Mel Gibson a long time. A great actor and a brilliant director, the man has made more good movies than bad. And his next project, a Viking film in its original Nordic language, sounds pretty epic. But will anyone want to see it, especially after hearing the seemingly endless stream of recordings flowing out into the public? Will the movie be able to get any distribution at all? And what of the public backlash if they do? Despite being from a self-described Christian nation, the last thing the general public wants to do is forgive a public personality. I’ve seen more people fold their arms and turn their noses up at Mel Gibson’s film with a snide “Not after what he did,” based upon a single written report from an LAPD police officer (an organization noted for its honesty, kindness and restraint). What’s going to happen now that we’ve all heard the rants?

Lindsay LohanWhich leads me to wonder: Where do we get off? I refuse to defend any of these people. They’ve all done despicable things, but the reaction to the tabloid nature of the events creates a new, radically different self-righteous shift in the online environment. Earlier this year I wrote a review of Polanski’s Ghost Writer, a brilliantly constructed thriller. I opened the piece with 400 words on the nature of art versus the artist, stating quite clearly that I am no fan of Polanski the man, but that as a critic it was my job to judge him by his work, not his deeds. Regardless, I received dozens of e-mails and hundreds of damning comments overflowing with righteous indignation, calling me all manner of names for “supporting” such an evil and foul man. One particularly foul writer from the UK – a man younger even than the event itself and a strong critic of the country whose laws Polanski fled – howled obscenities for days through online forums over my “defense” of him (writing positive things about his film.)

Where do we draw the line between art and artist? One of my favorite authors, William S. Burroughs, was a junky who went on the lam after accidentally murdering his wife playing a drunken version of William Tell. Jack Kerouac wrote a novel ostensibly about statutory rape and car theft and we consider it one of the great American novels. In fact, there are few famous members of the Beat generation not equally known for their crimes as they are their work. And yet we consider them masters. Heroes. Artists. Do we only award these distinctions posthumously? Or long after we’ve forgotten the stories? Will future generations look back with fondness for Gibson, Polanski and Lohan, as they are entirely removed from the racism, child molestation and coke-fueled binges?

When is it okay to acknowledge the art and not the artist? And why do some feel it is okay to attack those who wish only to discuss the art? Where do we draw the line?

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