The arrest this week of the film director Roman Polanski seems as good a time as any to review some received notions about artistic transgression, enfants terribles and the principle that talented entertainers should be held to different standards to the rest of us. Actually, my first thought was that the Polanski case is too clear-cut to get any debate along these lines off the ground. Good as Chinatown was, surely no one can think it purchased its director the right to abuse a drugged 13-year-old. Rotten as his life has frequently been (a large portion of his family died in the Holocaust and his pregnant wife was murdered by Charles Manson's cult; it really has had some low lows), that doesn't grant him compensatory permission to abuse children.
Still, the world is what it is and no opinion is too obtuse to find expression somewhere in the international coverage. Polanski, for the record, had been hiding in France for 30 years, having pleaded guilty in the US to unlawful sexual intercourse with an underage girl. The charge was the result of a messy plea-bargaining process that reduced more serious accusations; you can, if you fancy feeling depressed and nauseated for the rest of the day, read the grand jury minutes at www.thesmokinggun.com.
The fact that he evaded capture for so many years, continuing a successful career directing the toasts of Hollywood and, in 2002, winning an Oscar must be reckoned, in a certain sense, impressive - at any rate audacious. That doesn't make it desirable. Yet the French culture minister Frederic Mitterrand says he "strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them". The organisers of the Zurich Film Festival, where Polanksi was finally arrested when he turned up for a lifetime achievement award, expressed "shock and dismay" at this grotesque carriage of justice and arranged a ceremony "to allow everyone to express their solidarity for Roman Polanski".
Solidarity for Roman Polanski. It's an interesting thought, isn't it? Who could look on his lizardly countenance and think: "There but for the grace of God..." It can't all be sympathy for the hard-luck story: plenty of sex offenders have histories of grief and abuse to rival his and we jail them casually enough. There may be a class or coterie issue, of course: no one likes to feel the tentacles of the law reaching into their warm little circles. The rattled-chicken-coop talk about shock and alarm might seem to support this theory.
Still, I've an uneasy suspicion it's his status as An Artist that has done most to interfere with the ordinary course of justice. We like our cultural heroes to have a sulphurous whiff about them, a Byronic indifference to propriety. I suppose the idea is that if the world is a place of dreary constraint, art represents a domain of thrilling autonomy and the artist mediates between the two, in the process earning a kind of diplomatic immunity.
We like the fact that Caravaggio was a brawler, that Gesualdo was a mad prince who murdered his wife, and that Ezra Pound was a fascist. These biographical snippets seem to serve as a confirmation of their originality of mind, their liberation from merely conventional decencies. They also, perhaps more significantly, supply provocative talk-points that are easier to chew over than the art itself. We allow ourselves to become cultured gossips. Elias Canetti was a sadist and misogynist, don't you know. Oh really? Well, Dickens was a bully who preached genocide. So it goes.
There are other guilty satisfactions to be derived from the cult of the artistic monster, too. What marvellous worldliness and discernment we can display when we admit the master's faults - even to the point at which it contaminates the work itself, as in TS Eliot's Gerontion, the most accomplished of his overtly anti-semitic poems - and still insist on its greatness. What fine maturity of judgment we show, what attention to the many sides of a question, when we say, yes The Cantos are miserably bigoted, and yes, they're a work of genius. It's a cheap way of appearing sophisticated, of course, but still. The Cantos are a work of genius. Chinatown is a great film. Roman Polanski deserves to go to jail.
* Ed Lake