The Sexist

Sexist Beatdown: Rape or Art? Edition

Roman Polanski is free again: A victory for art, intellectualism, European sexual mores, and French dudes with a column on HuffPo, no? Um, no—all attempts to hide a convicted rapist who fled sentencing under a pile of shiny Oscar statuettes will not fool Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown and I! For, as Sady explains in this excellent piece for the Atlantic, Polanski ain't the only predator to hide behind the veil of "art":

Last week, the New York Times reported that Emma Tamburlini, the daughter of artist Larry Rivers, was asking to have videotapes of herself—young, topless, fielding uncomfortable sexual questions from her father about her breasts—removed from her father's archives and destroyed. She referred to them as "child pornography." The director of the Rivers Foundation, David Joel, demurred: "I can't be the person who says this stays and this goes," he said. Nor can Emma Tamburlini be that person, apparently; the current agreement is that the tapes will be shown after her death.

Looks like some priorities are fucked up in the art world! In this edition of Sexist Beatdown, Sady and I are totally on this! So join us as we  "sneak in a little Buttman discussion, and debate the merits of creating art while simultaneously not sexually assaulting people.

SADY: Hey! You know what feminist blogs haven't discussed, ever: Roman Polanski.

AMANDA: Nope. Kind of just let that one go. It's been so long, after all!

SADY: Right! If there's one thing I can say for us all, it is that a very famous dude sexually assaulting someone, confessing, being convicted and serving NO SENTENCE WHATSOEVER for this is something that we all just kind of let fade, after a certain point.

AMANDA: That, or convicted criminals who have fled the country gradually gain points for stamina. I think that's a legal thing. Particularly if they spend their 30-year European vacation doing things like making fancy movies!

SADY: Hah, yeah. This is the thing that kind of enrages, about the Polanski thing: The way so many folks were like, "but... he made MOVIES? They were really good!" And I won't deny that those were some really good movies. And that they benefited from having Roman Polanski direct them. The non-Polanski directed sequel to "Chinatown," for example, is just not so good! (Although, you know, kudos to Jack Nicholson for trying. And for not being convicted of rape.)

AMANDA: Generous points for that last detail. But like, how good do the movies have to be for people to excuse the rapist? As you pointed out in your piece, it's not like this happens all that often, but I'm betting that a lot of people would be willing to forgive people who make less than "Pianist" levels of art. Even saying that is ridiculous. THEY'RE MOVIES. Not people!

SADY: Right. I mean, if Tommy "The Room" Wiseau were convicted tomorrow, I doubt we'd be seeing these outpourings of sympathy. Although folks did rally around R. Kelly during his trial, which makes me think that the question is not how good one is, but how famous one is. If it were some random "Law and Order: SVU" directing alumnus, we wouldn't be here. But Le Cause de Polanski has always been framed as this issue of the permissive/enlightened European sophisticates/degenerates versus The Hard-Working Moralistic American People. Which is a take that's been encouraged by both sides, and ends up serving neither.

AMANDA: So there's a little bit more fame-mongering in Bernard-Henri Lévy's free-Polanski intellectualism than he'd like to admit, is what you're saying.

SADY: Oh, goodness me oh my, yes. I mean: How immeasurably has Levy's profile been raised, now that he's A-Number-One Polanski supporter in the public eye and/or the on the Huffington Post? And I'm sure he'd feel above all that, to some degree, but I don't understand why he keeps publishing on the philosophically enlightened and sophisticated HuffPo if he's not eager to get his name out there. I mean, maybe he just feels passionate about this cause, but I feel that demeans him MORE than a desire for HuffPo readership. Which is not something I say often!

AMANDA: I have several original Huffington Post nipple slips in my collection. So I'm covering this obscenity case in D.C. right now, and it's funny how the "art" argument worms its way into the legal pornography debate as well. These jurors have to decide if there's any redeeming artistic or literary or scientific value to the copious milk enemas they've viewed over the course of the trial. And so on cross-examination, the defense is asking witnesses stuff like, "And are you aware that the Adult Video News Awards are the Academy Awards of the adult entertainment industry?" "And are you aware that Buttman has won several of these awards?"


AMANDA: The whole thing is ridiculous. Like, I'm not against obscenity. But take the absurd "art" defense out of it.

SADY: Right. I mean: That's the thing. Like the Tamburlini/Rivers case that was being reported earlier this week. In that case, you could maybe make a more convincing argument for "artistic value" — an Artist, Recognized As Such, was coercing and pressuring his daughters into participating in uncomfortably sexual video shoots! For his Art! — but we're still not assuming that Art has the right to involve harm to actual human beings in the process of its creation. A person coerced and pressured his daughter into sexual activity, to which she objected. In the case of "obscenity," which is always tricky — even Dworkin didn't fully support banning porn under "obscenity" laws — the Art question can be brought up in defense, however. If it was relevant for Joyce, it's relevant for Buttman, sad to say. Which is what's so infuriating about this: Often, as in the Max Hardcore case, what's being prosecuted is sexual abuse of performers. And then people are like "obscenity laws are unconstitutional; why didn't these performers bring their cases to court?" Whereas if they did, as sex workers, they'd be slut-shamed and devalued and wouldn't stand a chance of winning.

AMANDA: That's true. The tricky thing is when there is legitimate abuse of performers (as in the Rivers case) and then the dissemination of the work in effect constitutes more abuse. Which, again, in any of these cases, the art argument only serves to obscure the issue, right? Are you producing these works with full consent and participation of everyone involved? Or are you abusing people, and filming that? In either case, it doesn't really matter to me if there's zero artistic value there or if it's fucking Shakespeare abusing his kids for "art.”

SADY: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, I think our conception of Artist as Special Person who is obliged or privileged to Stand Outside Of Societal Norms is useful, in some respects. In the respects that you can't just send D.H. Lawrence packing because he uses the fuck-word a lot, or you can't shut down Mapplethorpe because he's showing these queer BDSM images. But it's abused so easily by folks for stuff like the Polanski case, or the Rivers one — the Polanski case being even more indefensible because SEXUALLY ASSAULTING THAT GIRL HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ANY OF HIS MOVIES — to argue that These People Can't Be Held To Normal Standards.

AMANDA: Right. It also ends up being really elitist, or in Polanski's case, both elitist and celeb-focused. Like, hey, what if I'm a really shitty artist who works with queer BDSM imagery?

SADY: And I have to admit, most of my off-the-top-of-the-head associations with Artists who we have to Defend Against Charges of Obscenity because they're just outside the norm have to do with very famous men. Kathy Acker, maybe? But maybe not. I don't recall court proceedings, but that may just be the result of insufficient Googling.

AMANDA: Yeah. I mean, the art test is a really fucked up standard for obscenity law in my opinion. Like things we determine to be “good” and things we determine to be “bad” just balance each other out, naturally? And I think the Polanski case is some sort of bizarre extension of the logic—that if art is good enough, it can make anything tolerable. And maybe if Polanski starts making really shitty movies, everyone will have to be like, "Alright, lock him up," on principle.

SADY: Right. And it might just be a case of removing the quality of the art from the equation: Like, if we're testing whether the art in question is "obscene," that can apply to any kind of art with any kind of behind-the-scenes process. As a person who watches the extremely sophisticated Bravo program "Work of Art," I know this. BUT, if we make the question whether the creation and distribution of the "art" (????) objectively has to harm in order to be produced, we can actually legislate on the level of production, not content. And no-one will ever be able to say that this glorious painting made with the entrails of their Gramma deserves serious consideration ever again. I mean, yeah, we should protect "artists" against petty common morality charges. DUR. But "please don't rape anybody" isn't petty. Nor, sad to say, all that terribly common.

Photo via Jacob Freeze, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.o

  • kza

    Wiseau didn't even win a Razzie he can't get away with rape.

  • Lynet

    Wow, you've come up with a fascinating point, here. If your standards for what should and should not be allowed to be produced or distributed come down to "consent of those involved", are we talking about "obscenity" any more? It's really a different thing, and the defence that "it's art" is a lot less relevant.

  • Rick Mangus

    Polanski is a PIG and a PERV who needs to go to jail and to hell with the French and Swiss!

  • C

    Reminds me of when Chris Brown beat Rihanna -- tons of teenagers were saying that they loved him anyways because they liked his songs and he was hot.

  • Fuchsia

    Um, "European sexual mores"???? Really??? Europeans do not normally go around raping children. Please check your offensive assumptions.

    This was never about Europeans v Americans. It was about decent v indecent behaviour.

  • sauerbean

    @fuchsia I think the term "european sexual mores" is more about an acknowledged stereotype about certain "artistic groups", people who fit a whole lot of bad stuff under the umbrella of "sexual liberation", than it is about how the majority of European people act the majority of the time. Certain types of so called bohemian lifestyles are often used as an in group with which to say that all those who criticise their behaviour merely "do not get it". Perhaps it was not made clear enough in the tone of the article, but I think from context we know that Amanda and Sady are not about to assume that all Europeans are rapist and rape apologists.

    Plus whilst much of the Polanski thing is at heart not about America vs Europe, it has been spun and twisted that way, in it's making of in and out groups. It is true to say at least of governments that Polanski would be in prison by now if France cared to extradite him. This isn't a problem with France or even Europe as a whole, but as a result of these actions there really is an atmosphere of A vs E, even if it shouldn't really be that relevant.

  • Mandy

    @ fushia - Also, I think they're referring to some of the Polanski defenses people are saying, which is that Americans are uptight and Europeans are more sexually sophisticated (nod to Johnny Depp). I don't think they're saying it's true but that people are using that as a defense.

  • Reid

    You raped my eyes with that photo.

  • Fuchsia

    Sauerbean, that was kinda my point. It’s an offensive American stereotype of Europeans, which incidentally has no relation to the truth as all, and an incorrect use of a word that a lot of real people, such as e.g. myself, actually identify with. I didn’t actually believe that Sady and Amanda in fact think that Europeans routinely rape children. My assumption was however that they were using the word – again, a word I use to describe myself – as shorthand for “person who is licentious to the point of immorality”. I don’t really appreciate that much regardless of what the level of the authors’ actual knowledge of *actual* European sexual mores is.

    “whilst much of the Polanski thing is at heart not about America vs Europe, it has been spun and twisted that way”

    Yep, it was, that’s true. Perhaps however, rather than reinforcing that misconception, it would be more helpful to point out how it is not about diverging ideas of acceptable sexual behaviour at all, but rather about how Polanski is a creeptastic criminal according to the legislative and social norms of *both* the US and all European states.

    As for France not extraditing him, well, that’s quite a separate issue that involves the habit that sovereign countries in general have of protecting their own – I’m pretty sure the US would not have extradited either if the roles had been reversed. The French people on the other hand have not been very sympathetic to Polanski’s version of the story at all.


    Europeans in general have lots of negative stereotypes about Americans, “uptight” however is not really one of them (quite the opposite in fact – ever see “Love, Actually” for instance?) As far as I can see this is a view spun by:

    a) American media (I assume originating from stereotypes about Europeans existent among the American populace?)

    b) the artistic/intellectual elite, who for whatever reason have taken a fancy to the word “European” and coopted it. This elite would of course include actual Europeans, such as Bernard-Henri Levi, or people who aren’t really European at all, such as, as you helpfully point out, Johnny Depp.

    Again, however, given that the word actually has a real meaning, that real meaning being the identity of about 500.000.000 people, it is upsetting the see it misused in this manner.