The Harvey Weinstein scandal has ignited a bonfire of allegations in recent weeks. The problem is so acute that the Los Angeles County District Attorney is forming a task force to evaluate sexual assault cases in Hollywood.
Over the weekend, more names were added to the list.
Benny Medina is a music executive who has managed Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, and Mariah Carey, among others. Now he’s been accused of attempted rape. His attorneys have categorically denied the allegation.
Actress Rebel Wilson has also claimed that a male costar sexually harassed her while his friends tried to tape the encounter on their phones. She also described an incident with a “top director” who invited her to his hotel room, but she was able to escape.
We now know that many of the accused had a prior reputation for sexual immorality. Why did their colleagues and industries tolerate their behavior?
“Art for art’s sake”
Writing for the New York Times, Amanda Hess offers an insightful answer: the “myth of artistic genius” has excused the abuse of women and other personal immorality. Hess cites a 2009 New York Times round table on the relation of artists and their work.
One artist wrote, “Being an artist has absolutely nothing—nothing—to do with one’s personal behavior.” Another responder: “Let the art stand for itself, and these men stand in judgment, and never the twain shall meet.”
Yale University professor Jonathan Gilmore quoted author William Faulkner’s claim that “a real writer wouldn’t hesitate to rob his mother if it would further his art.” Gilmore noted the conventional belief that “the artistic genius acted through transgressing, not obeying conventional principles of art. It was a short step from seeing such artists as free of artistic rules to seeing them as liberated from the rules of conduct in general.”
This claim that art has its own intrinsic value is known as “art for art’s sake.” The phrase emerged in early nineteenth-century France and came to mean that art has its own value and should be judged apart from themes such as morality or religion. Nor should the artist’s own character and life influence our interpretation of his or her work.
Hess believes that this separation of creation and creator has fueled a culture that refused to hold artists accountable for their behavior.
Character and the Lewinsky scandal
The belief that we can divorce art from artist runs deeper in our culture than artistic achievement. Consider a case in point.
President Bill Clinton’s approval rating went up when the Monica Lewinsky scandal became public. According to Gallup, his popularity jumped 5.6 points compared to the preceding quarter.
It’s not that the scandal didn’t affect public perception of Clinton as a person: the number who considered him “honest and trustworthy” dropped to 24 percent by January 1999. And a majority of Americans agreed with the charges that formed the basis for his impeachment: 74 percent felt that he lied under oath, and 53 percent believed that he tried to obstruct justice.
But at the same time, 71 percent said his presidency had been a success. The primary reason: personal financial well-being measures were as high as they have been in Gallup’s history of measuring them. Clearly, many Americans chose to separate Bill Clinton the person from Bill Clinton the president. What he did for them was more important than who he was.
Who we are is what we are
How does the Bible view the separation of public actions and private integrity? King Solomon noted: “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways” (Proverbs 28:6; cf. Prov. 11:3; 19:1).
And yet Solomon’s personal immorality led to the division of his kingdom and ruined his public legacy (1 Kings 11:8–11). How can we avoid the same fate?
Let’s remember four facts:
One: Private sins will become public knowledge. Scripture warns, “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).
Two: As “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20), our character reflects on the God we represent.
Three: Even when we confess our sins, we forfeit the results of obedience. C. S. Lewis: “Whatever you do, God will make good of it. But not the good he had prepared for you if you had obeyed him.”
Four: Our personal integrity defines our true nature. Dwight Moody: “Character is what you are in the dark.”
This observation by C. S. Lewis challenges me whenever I consider it: “Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is? . . . If there are rats in the cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. . . . The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.”
Are there rats in your cellar today?