The French cultural world has been shaken to its core by the sexual misdemeanors of director Roman Polanski and the admissions of pedophilia by writer Gabriel Matzneff. Both men considered that their talent put them above the law and the common norms of decency in our societies.
Victims are now speaking out. While their predators saw them as muses, they have revealed that they were treated like cannon fodder, that the scars left by their traumatic experiences have never healed. The accused artists defend themselves with the mediocre excuse that times have changed. Since 1945 in France, the law for the protection of minors defines sexual relations with a child under the age of fifteen as a crime. However, this law was not enforced, essentially because the artistic elite saw themselves as an aristocracy living above the law and unaffected by the common norms of decency.
In truth, this is an age-old custom. In the 18th century, Voltaire believed that there were two morals: one for the elite, which was immoral, and one for the people, which should be restrictive. He also considered religion to be pointless for the higher classes, but indispensable for the masses. At least Voltaire was honest enough to recognize this moral and social discrimination.
Contemporary intellectuals and artists are less frank. Yet just as in the past, they make up a caste protected by political powers on both the left and the right. But surely this caste contributes to the glory of France by illustrating its culture? Would we have asked Jean-Paul Sartre if his countless conquests were of legal age? Even General de Gaulle, who must hardly have been Sartre’s biggest fan, ordered the police never to arrest him, even when he broke the law during street protests. “We would not imprison Voltaire,” said De Gaulle, assimilating the two philosophers, both of whom were learned in the theory of dual morality.
Gabriel Matzneff boasted about his pedophilia on television and used it as inspiration for his second-rate autobiographical novels. French philosopher Michel Foucault, an intellectual star of the 1970s, went even further. He considered that any law or norm was a form of oppression by the government and the bourgeoisie. In the name of absolute freedom, which he applied first and foremost to himself, he paid for little boys in Tunisia on the pretext that they, too, had a right to pleasure. Foucault cared little about what became of his victims, or perhaps he preferred to ignore the fact that they were victims of an old, white imperialist.
Suddenly, everything changed. Not the law, but societal morals, largely thanks to social media. Anonymous victims, who were too scared to speak out or who did not know where to do so, now had access to a platform. Their confessions and accusations are so powerful that even the artistic caste is scattering, turning on each other after years of protecting their mutually depravity. Until now, French culture ministers had shielded, rewarded, and bankrolled such artists, even pedophiles. This time is now over, and current minister Franck Riester recently declared that talent was no longer an excuse for crime. A slogan for an intellectual revolution.
But what should we do with past works? Should we take down Gauguin’s paintings because he abused prepubescent Tahitian girls? Burn books by confessed pedophile André Gide? Or stop teaching Michel Foucault’s philosophy? And what about anti-Semites? One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, was a notorious anti-Semite, but his work remains incontestably monumental.
Let us first apply the law to the living, even if they are artists. Talent is no longer an excuse. Next, the political authorities should stop rubbing shoulders with criminals on the pretext of their supposed genius. For past works, instead of burning them, we should be informed about what their authors were. This may often give us a fresh perspective. Foucault is still important today, but his standing will diminish when we realize that his exaltation of freedom was, by some strange coincidence, an alibi for his depravity. The same goes for Jean-Paul Sartre, another man of dubious morality. We should however remember that a pervert does not an artist make. Matisse and Cézanne led conventional lives, and so did Romain Rolland. As for the Marquis de Sade, he spent most of his life in prison, where he wrote his major works. His “sadism” was literary and victimless. Not only does talent not excuse crime, but respecting the law and others does not mean foregoing talent.