Artist or Abuser? The Controversy Surrounding Casey Affleck

Should the sexual harassment allegations against Casey Affleck stop him from winning an Academy Award? Is it right to separate art from the artist and judge it on its own accord? Film and TV writer Muireann O’Shea gives her own take on a sensitive issue which has plagued artists throughout history.

For centuries, one question has haunted art critics everywhere; should you separate the art from the artist? What sense can be made of the works of Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain or Vincent van Gogh without the context of their suicides? The tie between art and artist was brought to the debating table again last year, when the scandal du jour was that Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando had neglected to inform Maria Schneider of the infamous rape scene in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, until they were set to shoot. Should this incident remove from grandiose from Brando’s stellar acting skills? Should it taint our viewing of all Brando films from now on? If we choose to condemn art because of an artist’s crimes, are we being politically correct or simply petty? In this era of alt-rights and twitter rants, it is difficult to tell.

These questions have reared their hydra heads once more this awards season, primarily in light of Casey Affleck’s bid to win the Oscar for Best Actor. In 2010, Casey Affleck, the younger and more subdued brother of Ben, was sued by two former employees, Amanda White and Magdalena Gorka. They alleged that they were sexual harassed by Affleck during the production of his infamous and unsuccessful mockumentary I’m Still Here.  Among the incidents detailed in their statements, it is said that Affleck encouraged a crew member to expose himself to White, climbed into bed with Gorka while she was sleeping, locked the women out of their shared bedroom so that he could use the room to have sex with a different woman, attempted to manipulate them into having sex with him and when the women finally quit the project, he refused to pay them for their work. The lawsuit snowballed into an argument between lawyers and, ultimately, Affleck settled out of court.

Affleck’s Oscar film Manchester by the Sea details the plight of the white middle-class man and is competent tale of grief, but sadly, every female character is a mere hologram used to justify Affleck’s character’s indignation. Now if the art and the controversial claims about the artist are connected, it leaves the audience with an uneasy additional dimension for the viewer to interpret.

Affleck has received the ‘good-cop’ treatment from the media in the past year, on the grounds that what he may have done is nowhere near as bad as the actions of the Woody Allen’s and Roman Polanski’s of the silver screen. One stark difference between Affleck and most scandals before him, that often goes unmentioned is that this harassment allegedly took place during production of a film that Affleck was directing. Like that of Bertolucci and Brando, this sits closer to the realm of unethical workplace conduct, than that of an actor with a criminal past.

Likewise, Affleck’s career won’t sink over these lawsuits because he settled out of court. His race and economic standing would allow him to survive most scandals. We will never know what truths lay within these allegations, and it is a sad reminder of what can go on in film production industry. The resulting products on sale are films that encourage us to connect with characters on an intimate level, but they fool us into thinking that their world is transparent. It’s not, it harbours just as many shady deals and quick settlements as any other business sector.

“It would be a travesty to supersede a year in which the Academy honoured the voices of abuse survivors so well, by awarding an alleged abuser with an Oscar”

Do we separate the product from the producer outside the art world? Most of us suppress the knowledge that our clothes were probably made at the hands of child labour, just like the Academy ignores the fact that it has given the Oscar for Best Director to more alleged child molesters than women. If we make an effort, we can buy Fairtrade chocolate and organic vegetables, but I want to be a ‘vegan’ of cinema. Where is my assurance that no humans were harmed in the making of this film?

We are no closer to deciphering this symbiotic relationship between art and artist, but in the short-term, should the allegations against Affleck affect his chances of winning? In my opinion, yes. Last year saw Spotlight win Best Picture for detailing the Boston Globe’s investigation into child abuse within the church, Brie Larson won Best Actress for her role as a long-term sexual abuse victim in Room and Lady Gaga took to the stage with an entire crowd of abuse victims. It would be a travesty to supersede a year in which the Academy honoured the voices of abuse survivors so well, by awarding an alleged abuser with an Oscar.

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Muireann O’Shea Film & TV Writer

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