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Artists Are Not Special: 5 Creative People Who Shouldn't Be Forgiven

Why authors, filmmakers and philosophers shouldn’t get a license to destroy the lives of others.

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And we're hearing it again: Woody Allen's recent lifetime achievement award reignited debates over how his art stacks up against his alleged child molestation. This follows extensive reporting on R. Kelly's serial abuse of underage women, which goes largely neglected in coverage of his musical comeback. But these are just the latest iterations of an old, tired blindness.

Anyone who's been around a drunk college student with just enough intelligence to say some truly terrible things has heard the line of thought: "Surely their art must be taken into account! Who can weigh such personal impact against the power of creation that inspires hundreds, even millions? We don't know! We can't judge!"

Bullshit. Abuses committed by artists are not complicated issues, and the lack of judgement allows worse to go on. The mentality that writes brutalities off as "flaws" because of someone's celebrated work is part of the same culture that sanctions abuse and bigotry.

As this is the Internet age, I'll demonstrate this particularly noxious trend with a list: These are five artists out of the many who never got what they truly deserved.

1. Roman Polanski

Polanski has a heap of critical accolades, and occasionally, someone will mention the reason he can't return to America to accept them: He's wanted for fleeing a sexual abuse conviction in 1978. Thing is, the famed filmmaker didn't “just” have sex with an underage girl: He drugged a child and raped her. If you can stomach it, Kate Harding lays out the events of Polanski’s attack on 13-year-old Samantha Gailey here.

If he were without artistic genius or financial means, Polanski would be in jail for the rest of his life right now. As it is, he instead jets from villa to villa, able to lead a life without the trauma he inflicted on his victim. In a pattern that will become damn familiar, even half-hearted attempts to bring him to justice lead to an outpouring of artistic sentiment about the injustice done to him.

2. Norman Mailer

In 1960, Mailer, drunk and stoned, stabbed his wife, Adele Morales, with a rusty knife. Twice. He nearly killed her and told bystanders to “let the bitch die.” Instead of going to jail, the author spent just over two weeks in a mental hospital as his literary friends, by his own admission, “closed ranks behind him.” Morales was heavily pressured to ensure Mailer didn't stay imprisoned for too long, as it might "ruin his genius," and to drop the charges. She eventually did.

Mailer, rather than being tarred, went on to a lucrative career; Morales went on to live in a tenement. If articles like this one by Louis Menand in The New Yorker are any indication, Mailer’s near-murder of Morales still remains an asterisk next to his literary achievements.

3. Leni Riefenstahl

Yes, Riefenstahl remade film-making, pioneering techniques that are still in use today — but she also shilled for the Nazis. A lot. Even though her reputation took a bigger hit than some of the others on this list, it's rarely recalled exactly what Riefenstahl’s cooperation with the Nazis meant: While many Germans fled or resisted the Nazis, Riefenstahl made her cinematic dreams come true with slave labor and partied with the Goebbels family. She played an important part in legitimizing a hideous government, then lived like a queen until it was smashed.

Sadly, when Riefenstahl was finally caught, she was let off easy. Rather than be ruined, she romped around Africa making movies and doing nature photography. She went to her grave denying that she had known anything about the kind of regime she was serving. Like most of her life, it was a lie.


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