Nobody asks themselves whether it’s possible to separate the art from the artist unless they’ve already fallen at least a little bit in love with both. When a celebrated artist is credibly accused of sexual abuse, a schism begins to form in the minds of those who previously felt close to his persona and work, but it could take years, decades even, to fully investigate that rupture and finally break away—if that happens at all. Often the schism persists for a long time as a dilemma of ethical consumption (“I love the art, I despise the man, does that make it not all right to buy his work? How about just watching it?”), as if there were ever a clean way out of such a sentimental entanglement. If the devoted are incapable of closing the investigation, perhaps it’s because the art seems so much more layered and complex, so much truer to our felt experience than the flat, almost crude reality of a stranger’s unequivocal hurt.
The injunction to set aside the man and judge the work on its own merits, then, seduces precisely to the extent that it privileges the public’s attachment to an artistic legacy over the people who suffered to maintain it. To integrate such wildly unequal experiences would spoil the fan’s personal connection to artistic greatness, and, ultimately, change the quality of attachment that once did the work of etherealizing the ambition of a single man.
Two formidable works of narrative nonfiction released earlier this year reimagine popular accounts of abusive artists from the perspective of survivors, both of them born out of disenchantment with the prevailing genres of literary attachment that have rendered these survivors disposable: Parisian writer and publishing-world figure Vanessa Springora’s memoir, Consent, an account of her damaging sexual affair with celebrated French author Gabriel Matzneff, which she says began when she was fourteen; and Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s four-part documentary series, Allen v. Farrow, a reexamination of Dylan Farrow’s abuse allegations against her father Woody Allen, and the ensuing custody battle between him and his former partner Mia Farrow, much of it drawn from interviews with the Farrow family. Taken together, these two works attempt to blot out the romantic lies that have thrived in the cultures of both France and the United States for going on three decades—when their respective cases first came to public attention—by understanding that artists are always embedded in communities of readers (or viewers) and personal relationships that help form the work and are in turn shaped by it. This understanding emerges from a desire to speak from the margins of popular narratives that survivors have been written out of by omission, obscurity, and distortion. Consent and Allen v. Farrow rewrite these stories, undermining the personas that were enshrined in the art by turning that art against itself, as well as correcting the factual record.