Roman Polanski and the Limits of Artistic Freedom

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When Roman Polanski was apprehended last September in Switzerland, a thousand arguments sprang back to furious life. The issue of Polanski had always been contentious. Defenders liked to focus on his achievements, the fact that he had directed Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. No matter who he was, they argued, he deserved acclaim for what he'd made.

Detractors liked to focus, somewhat more convincingly, on the fact that he had been convicted of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old. Ushering him gladly into the canon felt irresponsible, given the fact that he hadn't even served time for the offense. But in early 2009, it felt like a moot point: He'd fled the country decades ago, he was apparently not returning, and there was nothing we could do but debate.

His arrest changed that. Here we were, faced with the possibility that Roman Polanski might actually be held accountable—not in the public eye, not in terms of his legacy, but legally, in his lifetime. It was a real issue, with real stakes. Lines were drawn; accusations were leveled. And the debate around the case uncovered once again the assumptions about art, and artists, that had informed much of the argument for the past three decades.

Immediately after Polanski's arrest, sympathetic narratives were easy to find—as were flat-out pleas for his release. "You'd hope that L.A. County prosecutors had better things to do than cause an international furor by hounding a film director for a 32-year-old sex crime," Patrick Goldstein sniffed, in an exemplary Los Angeles Times article. He also spared a few unkind words for anyone who felt differently: "Polanski has already paid a horrible, soul-wrenching price for the infamy surrounding his actions. The real tragedy is that he will always, till his death, be snubbed and stalked and confronted by people who think the price he has already paid isn't enough."

As it so happened, however, the price that Polanski paid was in fact not enough, at least not by the standards of the U.S. court system. And, thanks in large part due to a push back from feminists (notably Kate Harding, whose piece "Reminder: Roman Polanski Raped a Child" summed up most of the relevant issues right in the headline) it's not hard nowadays to find mainstream sources willing to call Polanski a rapist, and to demand that he be held accountable.

The people who stayed by Polanski, to increasing public denunciation, were artists—primarily people in film. A petition demanding his release framed the whole issue as a violation of artistic freedom: "It seems inadmissible to [us] that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers, is used by the police to apprehend him," it read. Signatories included Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, along with a mind-numbingly long list of other directors and actors. (When Wes Anderson released his first children's film, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, in November, its delicate whimsy was somewhat marred by the suspicion that the director would have pardoned someone for molesting a member of its target audience, should that molester have the right resume.)

Writer Bernard Henri-Levy issued a steady stream of pro-Polanski statements, and another petition, this time with signatures by Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie. Debra Winger accused the Swiss government of "philistine collusion," said that "whenever this happens"—"this," you would think, being pretty rare—"the whole art world suffers," and expressed her anticipation for Polanski's "next masterpiece."

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Sady Doyle is a freelance writer based in New York City. She blogs at Tiger Beatdown. More

Sady Doyle is a writer living in New York. She has contributed to Salon's Broadsheet, the American Prospect, the Guardian's Comment is Free, and Feministe. She blogs at Tigerbeatdown.com.

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