Moral Judgments

By Rob Patterson

A friend recently asked me as we were about to listen to a Jerry Lee Lewis track: “Can an artist’s work be so great that you can suspend moral judgments for something they did?”

The simple answer is obviously no. But life is rarely that simple.

She posed the quandary even before filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested in Zurich to now face possible extradition to the United States, having fled to Europe after his 1977 conviction after a plea bargain for drugging and then having sex with a 13-year-old girl. The simple answer to the above question in this case is obviously no; sex with a minor is a heinous act that has soul-shattering effects on the victim, and no person with a conscience should tolerate such an act.

But Polanski’s case also has its many complex dimensions, as outlined in the documentary film Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. There are questions about how the judge handled the plea bargain agreement. The victim has forgiven him. The director’s personal history certainly bags mercy: persecution by the Nazis as a Polish Jew during World War II and the brutal 1969 murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by followers of Charles Manson.

Such fellow filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David Lynch and Wim Wenders as well as other movie notables signed a petition demanding Polanksi’s release following the recent arrest. The Oscar-winning director has certainly made an indelible mark on the art of cinema, for which he deserves respect as a creative artist, and he has suffered far beyond what most of us can even imagine in his life.

But does any, if not all, of that trump what he did and his flight to avoid further sentencing following a 42-day court ordered psychiatric examination? The morally correct response would be for Polanski to willingly return to America to face final full judgment for his conviction as well as subsequent avoidance of the consequences. As I write this, signals from Polanski’s camp indicate he may be willing to do so. The tragic dimensions of the case and his life would be best served by such action. Yet the taint of what he did will never be erased.

Then there’s the somewhat similar situation with Lewis, who married his 13-year-old cousin in what became a scandal that certainly prevented him from becoming the lasting star that his considerable talents should have earned him. In this case, his wife/cousin Myra was a willing partner, and there is the cultural context from the American South of the past in which mature men did marry women who by today’s legal standards are far underage. There is also the mysterious death by drug overdose of a later wife that an article in Rolling Stone magazine raised pressing question about regarding his possible involvement. And there is also the tragedies he suffered: the drowning death of his son with Myra and another son who died in a car accident.

In my estimation, Lewis is, at his best, the finest singer and instrumentalist in rock’n’roll (as well as in his later work in country music). Any number of his recordings continue to thrill me like few, if any, others and some of his performances I’ve seen are etched into my mind and soul as highlights of my own life as a devotee of popular music (especially the one where in between songs he commented on his cousin’s sex scandal by saying, “Reverend Jimmy Swaggart: Judge not lest ye be judged”).

Following the recent death of Michael Jackson, there was an obvious call from some to suspend any judgment for the accusations of sexual activities with underage boys, for which he was never convicted (yet I believe still did). And all the instances cited here are just some of the many scandalous and morally objectionable behavior by creators of great popular art.

I have no easy answers for my friend’s question. There are two far less horrible yet still morally offensive instances (to me) by some musical artists based where I live in Austin, Texas, that have moved me to never listen to — much less write about — the music of these talents (though neither has created work as brilliant as that of Polanski, Lewis and Jackson). I still admire Polanski’s films and have what can only be called a love for the music of Lewis. On the other hand, Jackson’s best work now feels stained to me by alleged acts that were never proven by the rule of law.

Lewis did make a salient point with the Christian dictum about judgment (even though as just said above, I have judged two lesser artists to the point of active condemnation). In all of these examples, I do understand why these people may have engaged in condemnable behavior. And I strive if not always succeed in being forgiving, which is not the same as suspending a moral assessment for what these people did or may have done.

In the end, it’s a decision we all must make from both our moral and aesthetic standards as to whether the life and actions of a creative person defiles their own art. And to do so does not necessarily mean that one suspends moral standards and/or absolves wrongdoers while still liking and admiring what they created. Alas, great creators are almost always all too human and fallible, which is an essential element of most all creative souls.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2009

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