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."

Conservative commentators, eager to spin another story about clueless Hollywood liberal elites, picked up the story and ran with it, and soon it was the ruling narrative: Slobs vs. snobs, aesthetes vs. philistines, the elite vs. the common folk, people who liked movies vs. people who thought convicted criminals ought to go to jail. Of course, there's no inherent opposition between those last two groups: Plenty of people who enjoyed Roman Polanski's work were also in favor of his arrest. But there was a disturbing tone in the responses of Polanski sympathizers, an ugly assumption beneath the talk: That being an artist, a great artist, confers certain privileges, and that one of those privileges is the ability to hurt people and get away with it.

In fact, the assumed moral duties of the art world do sometimes conflict with the moral priorities of everyday life—and the conflict can sometimes be brutal. Sometimes it makes sense: Defending Joyce or Burroughs or Mapplethorpe, defending even Joel-Peter Witkin's ability to pose and photograph unclaimed corpses from a Mexico City morgue (although someone's basic humanity is being denied in that scenario, and it's not Joel-Peter Witkin's). And sometimes, it makes no sense whatsoever. Last week, the New York Times reported that Emma Tamburlini, the daughter of artist Larry Rivers, was asking to have videotapes of herself—young, topless, fielding uncomfortable sexual questions from her father about her breasts—removed from her father's archives and destroyed. She referred to them as "child pornography." The director of the Rivers Foundation, David Joel, demurred: "I can't be the person who says this stays and this goes," he said. Nor can Emma Tamburlini be that person, apparently; the current agreement is that the tapes will be shown after her death.

It still feels, strangely, uncomfortable to say that there has to be a limit to "artistic freedom"—that the privilege of the artist to test boundaries and violate conventions has to stop somewhere, and that the place for it to stop is at the exact moment that it violates the rights of another human being. But the equation—Tamburlini's right to control her own body, even in retrospect, versus the right of future scholars to see her father's work—seems fairly simple. If we have to decide between culture and a girl's life, the girl wins. And in the case of Polanski, invocations of Art and Culture make even less sense. None of Polanski's films were convicted of "illegal sexual intercourse" with a minor; he was. In fact, Polanski's defenders are doing exactly what feminist critics are always being told not to do; they're confusing art with artist, transferring the praise or blame due one party onto the other.

But Polanski's been let free. The Swiss won't extradite; they can apparently be let off the hook for "philistine collusion." He's gone, still, and it seems likely that he will be for a very long time. Once again, all that we can do is debate.