You don’t hear Gary Glitter’s records much anymore. Do you? Long after his high period ended, songs such as Rock ’n’ Roll Pt 2 and I’m the Leader of the Gang (I am), still blared over advertisements and from the speakers at football matches.
As recently as 2012, the former – famous for its undulating “hey” – accompanied touchdowns in the NFL. That lucrative earner for Glitter, currently in prison for sex offences, was soon shut down. The tunes can be streamed online, but they are not much played in public places.
The point here is that cultural artefacts really can be edged out of view when their creator is deemed morally indefensible.
Many of us have been wrestling with related issues since the revelations about Harvey Weinstein unleashed a carnival of reckoning on Hollywood.
Should we feel comfortable watching the films of Kevin Spacey? Ridley Scott was sufficiently concerned about answers to the last question that, with weeks to go and at appalling expense, he replaced Spacey with Christopher Plummer in the upcoming All The Money in the World.
Such questions have been long asked about the films of Roman Polanski (who pled guilty to statutory rape in 1977) and Woody Allen (accused of sexually abusing his step daughter).
Now, they are being asked about John Lasseter. The founder and creative mastermind of Pixar Studios has taken a six-month leave of absence after admitting to "missteps" in his behaviour towards staff. Can we allow ourselves to watch Toy Story ever again?
It goes without saying that bad people can produce great art. Caravaggio may have been a murderer. Degas was a fierce anti-Semite. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. William S Burroughs shot his to death. William Golding admitted to attempted rape in his journals. And so on.
All the same, few of us will now watch a Roman Polanski film without feeling a little unease. Gary Glitter’s records are rarely played at weddings.
Each of these questions poses different dilemmas. No neat principle offers universal guidelines. A complex matrix of concerns and compensations governs our reactions to art works by bad people.
Time is a factor. It seems unlikely that evidence even of mass genocide by Geoffrey Chaucer would cause The Canterbury Tales to vanish from the syllabus. Our emotional and moral connections with the personality behind the work wither as the centuries progress.
Obviously, the gravity of the offence is an issue. The extent of the offender’s contribution to the work is another. We may squirm while watching Spacey in House of Cards. It would take a very angry viewer to banish an early film in which he briefly opened a door for the passing lead.
We don’t yet have enough parameters to resolve the Lasseter Matrix. It was initially reported that Rashida Jones, a writer on Toy Story 4, left the project with her collaborator Will McCormack after Lasseter made an unwanted sexual pass.
She has since denied that, but her statement muddies other nearby waters. “We did not leave Pixar because of unwanted advances. That is untrue,” Jones explained. “That said, we are happy to see people speaking out about behaviour that made them uncomfortable. We parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences.”
She went on to describe Pixar as a having “a culture where women and people of colour do not have an equal creative voice.” Stories subsequently emerged about Lasseter’s propensity to hug anybody within range. “You’d hug him and he’d whisper in your ear,” an “insider” told the Hollywood Reporter. “He hugged and hugged and everyone’s looking at you. Just invading the space.”
The news emerges as Coco, Pixar’s latest animated feature, opens in the United States. It seems unlikely that the behaviour of the company’s founder will have any significant effect on box office. But its current position as runaway favourite for the animated feature Oscar – in a weak year for mainstream studio product – may be looking just a little shaky. Facts are still to emerge.
In the short term (before the creator becomes a historical figure) two key questions play in the mind when approaching work by a morally dubious figure. The first has do with whether we should enjoy the piece; the second helps explain whether we can appreciate the piece.
Does the artist profit from our enjoyment? The Gary Glitter case offers a useful example here. Just a few years ago, it was determined that the former Paul Gadd was still receiving close to $250,000 from the licensing of his music. Each time a football club belts out his songs, the sex offender's wallet swells just a little.
If you feel John Lasseter’s offenses are sufficiently appalling to merit remote punishment then you may wish to stay away from Pixar films. The problem here is that, film being a famously creative art, you will deprive thousands of other blameless contributors of their fairly earned dollar. If you already own Toy Story then the issue scarcely arises.
Second, does the work in any way reflect the offender’s skewed morality? Consider the tricky case of Woody Allen. Currently married to a woman who, 35-years-his junior, was raised as the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow, Allen has a habit of casting the male lead – usually himself in early pictures – against a significantly younger romantic interest.
The durable Annie Hall offers few such difficulties (heck, Diane Keaton is a trifling decade younger than Allen), but his 1979 film Manhattan – once considered a masterpiece – is now much more difficult to watch. It’s not just that the 42-year-old protagonist’s girlfriend is only 17.
The real unease comes from the realisation that the film’s purpose is to dispel any supposedly mad suggestions that such relationships are inappropriate. Only Isaac Davis himself, one of Allen’s classic alter egos, has any moral qualms. His two best pals tell him to stop worrying. The girl can’t understand his objections.
Crucially, all these people are more balanced and rational than Isaac. His concerns about the age difference appear to spring from the trademark Woody neurosis. They are no different to his characters’ irrational fear of pigeons or hatred of California. Eventually, the sane people make Isaac see sense and he accommodates himself to sleeping with a teenager.
We should always have worried a touch about the film’s argument. We should worry more about it now. Thanks to Gordon Willis’s stunning black-and-white photography, Manhattan remains the most beautiful film ever made about New York City. But its philosophies are poisoned.
Ultimately, the decision about whether or not to approach supposedly tainted work is an emotional one. We find it hard to tidy away our anger about an offense when the offender is staring down the camera or lurking creatively behind the editing desk. Attitudes shift. Works that initially seem ruined by ugly associations will often creep back into the canon.
Meanwhile, works that actually put unhealthy arguments in print or on the screen can seem less acceptable as the years progress. The ugly attitudes to African-Americans in Gone With the Wind are harder to bear now than they were a mere decade ago and screenings of that film have recently been cancelled in the American south. The matrix ebbs and flexes.
We can say one thing with certainty. Contrary to the panicked views of some right-wing babies, there is no need to fret about the cultural storehouse being annihilated by “social justice warriors”.
Some may feel uneasy watching the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski. A few Pixar fans may look elsewhere for a spell. But there is still plenty of culture to go round.