In the light of Roman Polanski's nomination as the Cesar Awards presenter: Can you dissociate an artist from his work?

22 January
29 January

My short answer to this question is ‘no’. Whenever I contemplate any work of art, I think about the person or people who created it. However, the answer becomes more complex when we ask about the context in which the artist and his work is assessed. In particular, for a long period in film studies, following the influence of structuralism and poststructuralism, especially authors such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, there was a tendency to play down the biography of an artist, when analysing his or her work. The critic/historian was meant to focus on the work itself. This approach is no longer dominant, and we observe a renewed interest in the artists’ lives.

However, even against this background, the situation of Roman Polanski, has always been somewhat different for two reasons. First, he is a filmmaker with an exceptionally interesting biography, filled with tragedy and scandal, which inevitably attracts more interest than in the case of his peers. The fact that he can be seen as both a victim (of anti-Semitism and communist oppression) and a victimiser (an abuser of a minor who escaped trial) renders him even more unusual. Second, as almost all authors writing about his work, including myself, emphasised, his films appear to reflect his life more than is the case with the majority of famous directors. The worldwide success of The Pianist confirms this opinion.

However, what is at stake in the row about his nomination to chair the Cesar panel and his subsequent withdrawal is, in my opinion, something else: the moral right of an artist with less than perfect personal conduct to judge the work of fellow artists and how long people should pay for the sins of their youth. Those opposing Polanski’s nomination most likely believe that such a person should be beyond reproach, given that films should have not only aesthetic value, but also moral and political significance. Most likely the opponents also believe that sex with a minor is a permanent stain on man’s honour. On both accounts I dare to disagree.

First, for positions such as that of the chairs of prestigious awards, we should balance the moral and aesthetic requirements. Given Polanski’s achievements as a film director and actor, he is very well suited to judge the work of his colleagues. Secondly, while I believe that Polanski committed a crime, there are certain extenuating circumstances to it, such as his lack of knowledge of the age of the girl with whom he had sex, a different moral climate, when it happened, to that in which we live now, as well as his subsequent attempts to atone for his crime, which led to his victim forgiving him publicly, and his spotless moral conduct following his escape from the United States. If his victim forgave him, why shouldn’t I?

More information in the book 'Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveler' by Ewa Mazierska

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