Oscars 2017: Casey Affleck's Best Actor win for Manchester By The Sea rekindles ‘art vs society’ debate

Pradeep Menon

Feb 27, 2017 11:30:09 IST

If you’ve had the privilege of seeing Bernini’s marble sculpture, ‘The Rape of Proserpina’ in its original, I envy you. In case you haven’t, then even a high resolution photograph of the artwork will suffice, if one wanted to get a sense of the sheer mastery on display. Its gorgeously grotesque imagery apart, observe the intricacy with which Pluto’s hands have been carved around Prosperpina. Marble magically begins to look like skin, and you’re overwhelmed by the greatness of its maker, Bernini.

Would it make any difference to you, though, if you learned that Bernini once had the face of his lover slashed repeatedly, because he got to know of her affair with his own brother? (He even violently attacked his brother, almost killing him, at the time).


Casey Affleck from the Manchester By The Sea trailer.

In another universe (and time-zone), would Annie Hall and Manhattan (among so many others) be as appealing to you, if you were convinced that Woody Allen sexually assaulted a child, his own adopted daughter?

This debate, around the greatness of art versus the morality of the artist, has been around for long, resurfacing at certain times, as in the case of Casey Affleck and his Best Actor win at the 89th Academy Awards (Oscars 2017) this year, for Manchester by the Sea. Widely appreciated, with critical acclaim and a host of awards already, Affleck already being considered a front-runner for the Best Actor Academy Award.

Do sexual assault allegations make his extraordinary performance less worthy of a nomination? The answer, in my opinion, is no – they do not. (Wait, read me out.)

Art, in any experiential form, documents society like nothing else. As important as the sciences are, in improving the quality of human life and attempting to answer the most fundamental mysteries around our existence, the arts occupy an equal place in the evolution of humankind.

True, being an artist does not grant moral exemptions to anyone. A crime is a crime, and everyone is equal before the law.

Yet, even amid all that turmoil, any work of art created by the artist can best be appreciated in isolation of its inherent artistic quality, because it is a flawed human being who has created it. Choosing to accept or boycott it is a personal choice, but one cannot fault someone for separating the art from the artist.

Look closer home – at Salman Khan or Subhash Kapoor, writer-director of the Jolly LLB films, for instance – and the debate appears even more complex.


Salman Khan. Firstpost Image.

The former is the emotional messiah of millions. Salman Khan is widely considered guilty of the crimes he was charged with and then acquitted of. Many choose to avoid his films, but the surging box office numbers of his films show that his mass popularity hasn’t deteriorated, and he is now even being hailed for his better film choices and allegedly-good performances.

One cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that Salman Khan is a role model for plenty, but what his image stands for doesn’t sound like what you’d want a role model to be.

Subhash Kapoor, on the other hand, appears to be quite guilty of the rape allegations against him, by an actress. (A video shows all parties involved having a confrontation, and Subhash Kapoor’s guilt looks all but certain.)

But look at both the Jolly LLB films, and you’ll realise that Indian cinema would have been poorer without them. They are sharp, incisive, capture milieu like few Hindi films do, and yet manage to be entertaining as well. Surely, one can’t not appreciate the films widely, even if the heart and brain behind the films has a personal life mired in murkiness.

(Then, there’s Shiney Ahuja, who was shunned by the public and the industry after similar allegations were made against him.)

There is no clear answer to the art vs artist debate, to be sure.

But one cannot deny that if the art has the ability to stimulate the senses or, perhaps, touch lives, then the morality of the artist can be kept away from experiences that work of art. The law can take its own course and strip the artist of the ability to create art, and that is completely fair.

But if the artist is allowed to work, then perhaps the artwork was just meant to be.

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Updated Date: Feb 27, 2017 11:44:25 IST