The current saga of Roman Polanski, who aspires to the lofty category of "artist," reminds us of the old Puritan suspicion of actors as immoral. It may shock people of all persuasions to learn that all artists–and scientists as well–were subjected to withering criticism by that patron saint of modern liberalism, Jean Jacques Rousseau. "[T]he depravity [is] real," wrote the author of the Discourse that won the prize of the Academy of Dijon in 1750, among peoples whose "souls have been corrupted in proportion to the advancement of our sciences and arts toward perfection."
Critics of Rousseau were quick to point out that he did not miss any of Moliere’s plays and thought they had espied a hypocrite. But Rousseau’s main concern was the popularization of the arts and sciences, retaining immense respect for those with genuine talents. He feared that these disciplines, if freed altogether from social or political control, threatened not only to corrupt the nations that indulged them but degraded art and science themselves.
More, as artists and scientists gain prominence they regard themselves as beyond criticism and become indifferent to the fate of their fellow citizens. They even become toadies of corrupt regimes as long as they are left free to do as they please, and those who lived under monarchies were willing to glorify them.
Rousseau believed that the passion for distinction could find an outlet in the arts and sciences no less than in politics and war, and saw clearly that many whose ambitions far exceeded their talents would attempt nonetheless to reap the rewards of celebrity and fame.
Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist that "the love of fame is the ruling passion of the noblest minds," convinced that the greatest among us would perform great deeds so as to be remembered for all time. The patriots of 1776 founded a republic and thereby won lasting fame.
However, Abraham Lincoln warned in his famous Lyceum Speech of 1838 that those who seek fame are as likely to win it by destroying republics as by establishing them, indicating that moral virtue in our leaders was necessary to avoid the fate of ancient Greece and Rome with Alexander and Caesar, and modern France with Napoleon.
Lincoln’s political critique applies to no less to other famous people, particularly artists and scientists. Is it difficult to see the passion for fame in Charles Darwin’s challenge to the natural law teachings of the founders of modern science with his theories of random chance in the biological world? Of Pablo Picasso’s revolutionizing of painting as no longer a representation of the visual world?
The dime store versions of these talented but misguided souls are persons who advance their careers by endorsing the "consensus view" in the learned academies, such as the dangers of "global warming," and Hollywood producers who confuse their passion for pushing the moral and political envelope with genuine talent.
People who seek distinction from being contrary to what the majority of their fellow citizens believe or support have convinced themselves that they are "a cut above" all those they regard as dummies, and use their status as a free ticket to a life of unaccountable behavior.
Polanski illustrates this perfectly. He committed a heinous crime and fled the country before sentencing, living on the lam in Europe for over 30 years. He and his "artistic" friends believe that his status entitles him to immunity from laws that govern everyone else. No one exposed this vanity better than The Nation's Katha Pollitt:
"The widespread support for Polanski shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening, fatuous worst. They may make great movies, write great books, and design beautiful things . . . But in this case, they're just the white culture-class counterpart of hip-hop fans who stood by R. Kelly and Chris Brown . . . "
Wasn’t Polanski in Switzerland, a neutral country, and attending an international arts festival, a world of the immortals? Who are these narrow-minded law enforcement officers who think they can arrest the producer for something that Whoopi Goldberg informed us was not "rape rape?"
The arts and sciences are among the greatest gifts of our Maker to the human race, but every gift should be treated with the respect it deserves and not used as an excuse for vicious acts and cults of personality. Whether or not they make people corrupt, it is clear that they are no barrier to corruption. Morality remains central to civilized life.