Below is my column on the move to remove the star of Donald Trump from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The controversy of the Trump star is trivial in comparison to the more important, and growing, question of whether art appreciation should be based to some degree on appreciating the artist.
Here is the column:
While Democrats continue debating what to do about President Trump, Hollywood has moved forward with its own unique form of impeachment. The West Hollywood City Council voted unanimously to seek the removal of the Donald Trump star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The removal would be based on Trump not sharing the “values” of West Hollywood.
Frankly, having a fight between Hollywood and Trump over values is like watching a battle between Arbys and Atkins over veganism. It hardly plays to their strengths. This controversy is a trivial example of a much more significant debate over whether our views of art should be shaped by our views of an artist. Efforts to punish artists have come in many ways, from retroactively pulling recognition to actively boycotting all their work.
Trump is certainly not the only star facing a literal stripping of his name. Actor Kevin Spacey had his prestigious International Emmy Founders Award for his lifetime of work revoked after he was charged with sexual abuse. Then there is the move to remove the name of John Wayne from the Orange County airport because of the disclosure of his controversial and racist statements. While I oppose the move to rename the airport, one can argue that an airport dedication is a way to honor not just the work but the life and image of a person. Industry awards, like the Oscars and the Emmys, are not recognition of good conduct but of great work.
The West Hollywood City Council cited the values of Trump and his treatment of women as proof that he no longer warrants the “privilege” of having a star. Other people clearly agree, since individuals have used everything from pick axes to paint cans to obliterate his star. Yet, if we are going to evaluate artists based on their lives and actions rather than on performances in their work, then a constellation of stars could be removed from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There are 2,600 such stars constituting a gallery of misfits, menaces, and even alleged murderers.
For instance, silent film actor Roscoe Arbuckle stood trial for murder after a woman died during sex. Gig Young, famous for his roles in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and other films, is believed to have murdered his wife and then killed himself. Michael Jackson still has his star after his child molestation trial. Errol Flynn was notorious for his preference for underaged girls, whom he called his “San Quentin Quail.” Flynn faced charges but was found not guilty. Charlie Chaplin faced prosecution under the White Slave Traffic Act, a law also known as the Mann Act.
Even though the West Hollywood City Council cited the need to sanitize the sidewalk in light of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, actors with both stars and domestic abuse allegations include Charlie Sheen, Don Cornelius, and John Drew Barrymore, just to name a few. Ultimately, the future of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame matters little to most of us. I could also care less about “The Apprentice,” the reality show of Trump that I never watched because it falls short of my view of entertainment.
The more disturbing efforts focus on punishing artists by boycotting their past work and barring future work. This is a controversy that is coming to a head with the release of the new Woody Allen movie, “A Rainy Day In New York,” the Roman Polanski film, “An Officer and A Spy,” and the Mel Gibson movie, “Rothschild.” Writing about the sexual abuse allegations against Allen, movie critic Ann Hornaday asked, “How can we possibly tease apart individuals and their actions, and doesn’t doing so mean that we’re failing our own moral imperative to hold people to account?” She said it is a “delicate balance” in considering “crimes and misdemeanors.”
Some artists are now being held accountable by a movement to remove songs and movies, in the Hollywood version of the movement to remove confederate monuments. Various radio stations have stopped playing songs by Michael Jackson because of the allegations of sexual abuse of young boys. Disc jockey Michele Pesce joined the boycott in the wake of the “Leaving Neverland” documentary, explaining, “You cannot separate the art from the artist when it comes to using your public platform” now.
Likewise, the allegations of sexual abuse against Spacey led not only to his appropriate removal from the hit show “House of Cards” on Netflix but to his retroactive removal from his scenes in the movie “All The Money In the World.” All Quentin Tarantino films are boycotted by many police unions and their supporters because of his views on police brutality. Many people today still boycott any events or movies with Jane Fonda because of her controversial protests against the Vietnam War during the 1960s.
There is a fascinating disconnect in all of the efforts to boycott the work of artists in a city that rightfully vilifies the Joseph McCarthy era blacklisting of Hollywood producers, writers and actors because of their political views and associations, yet now considers it appropriate to boycott Mel Gibson for his alleged anti-Semitic views. Hollywood agent Ari Emanuelwrote on this several years ago, “People in the entertainment community, whether Jew or gentile, need to demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Gibson and refusing to work with him,” adding, “even if it means a sacrifice to their bottom line.”
The question is whether this is “sacrificing” the bottom line of profits, or something more profound, in the appreciation of art for its own sake. Is the performance of Gibson in “Braveheart” less of an art form because of his anti-Semitic raving at a traffic stop? Once these brilliant creations are made, they assume a cultural life of their own. They become as much of our social fabric as the personal story of the artist. Harvey Weinstein may be a pig but he helped to create classic films such as “Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Shakespeare In Love,” “Gangs of New York,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and more. Are these films now tainted by artistic bad blood?
If we must agree with the personal values of an artist to appreciate his or her art, our museums would be bare. Caravaggio was responsible for some of the greatest paintings in world history. He was also responsible for numerous scandals and for killing a man in a piazza. His paintings are not suddenly mundane because we know more about him. There is no original sin that leaves behind traces on art. There is just the art itself.
We need to come to some resolution on whether we can separate art from controversial artists. If Spacey preyed on young actors, there is every reason not only to keep him off future sets but to send him to prison. It would be a loss to theater of one of the great talents of this generation, but he would be just another case of wasted talent. However, his past work would no longer be truly his. It is art that stands on its own merits.
I was surprised Trump got a star for “The Apprentice.” Then again, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin also have stars. The problem is not our disagreement on the value of artistic work but whether art can be valued separately from the artist. I believe it can. As stated in “Julius Caesar,” the great play by Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.