My Woody Allen problem

On the morning of the Oscar nominations, I was chatting with a stranger about movies, as one does. The conversation turned to Woody Allen. “My son has seen all his movies, and he thinks he’s innocent,” she said. “I’ve seen all his movies, and I think he’s guilty,” I said. There was not much else to say.

There is a lot more to say. The words we chose weren’t quite the right ones. Innocence and guilt are legal (and also metaphysical) standards, but when we talk about the behavior of artists and our feelings about them, we are inevitably dealing with much messier, murkier, subjective issues. It’s not just a matter of whether you believe Dylan Farrow’s accusation of sexual abuse — reiterated a few weeks ago in a television interview — or the denial from her father, Mr. Allen. It’s also a matter of who deserves the benefit of the doubt.

The charge that Mr. Allen molested Dylan Farrow surfaced in 1992, in the wake of his breakup with Mia Farrow. That rupture was caused by Mia Farrow’s discovery that Mr. Allen was sexually involved with Soon-Yi Previn, who was her adopted daughter, though not Mr. Allen’s. His defenders (including his and Mia Farrow’s adopted son Moses) suggest that the allegation of abuse was the invention of a spurned woman lashing out against the man who had humiliated her.

The severity of that accusation, and Mr. Allen’s steadfast denial of it, had the curious effect of neutralizing what might otherwise have been a reputation-destroying scandal. “The heart wants what it wants,” he famously said, and what his 56-year-old heart desired was a 21-year-old woman he had known since she was a child. He married her, kept making movies, and the whole business faded into tabloid memory.

I remember the debating points vividly, which is to say I remember invoking them in arguments with friends at the time. Ms. Previn was not a minor. Mr. Allen and her mother had never lived together. He was not Soon-Yi’s father, or even her stepfather, even if he was the father of her half-siblings. And besides, Mr. Allen’s love life was personal, and therefore irrelevant. What mattered was the work.

For more than two decades, Mr. Allen’s credibility as an artist was undiminished. The reception of his movies fluctuated, but critics (myself included) often enough found reason to hail a return to form after a fallow period. He won awards, and actors clamored for the chance to appear in his films. Only now has that started to change.

The old defenses are being trotted out again. Like much else that used to sound like common sense, they have a tinny, clueless ring in present circumstances. The separation of art and artist is proclaimed — rather desperately, it seems to me — as if it were a philosophical principle, rather than a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma. But the notion that art belongs to a zone of human experience somehow distinct from other human experiences is both conceptually incoherent and intellectually crippling. Art belongs to life, and anyone — critic, creator or fan — who has devoted his or her life to art knows as much.

Read more at The New York Times.