Among the remarkable details of Roman Polanski’s arrest last fall was the notably different reaction to it on the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. While the North American media published explicit and condemnatory accounts of Polanski’s rape of a thirteen-year-old girl, in Europe the reaction was much more ambivalent. The governments of France and Poland both came to Polanski’s defense, and when he was released on bail, his sister-in-law thanked French President Nicolas Sarkozy for stepping in on the film director’s behalf.
With so little to gain politically from defending a convicted child rapist—and, one would think, plenty to lose—why would European politicians bother? The answer lies in Europe’s relationship to its artists, and the mythos of their genius. Simply put, sexual transgression, even to a criminal degree, has always been an accepted, even expected, quality of the continent’s most celebrated artists.
The French poet Charles Baudelaire frequented prostitutes so wantonly that he spent much of his time treating his syphilis and gonorrhea. His contemporary Arthur Rimbaud, was said to have offered a personal enemy a glass of milk spiked with his own semen. Things weren’t much different on the other side of the English channel. Oscar Wilde’s opposition to Britain’s draconian anti-homosexuality laws is justly celebrated today—but his predilection for underaged male prostitutes is hardly as laudable. Wilde did two years of hard labour for “homosexual acts,” but he would have spent as much time or more in jail today for statutory rape. Lord Byron once offered the mother of a 12-year-old girl 500 pounds for her. When the mother rejected his offer, he wrote “Maid of Athens, Ere We Part” in the girl’s name. Byron was eventually forced to leave England permanently amid allegations of incest, but when he died, the Times of London declared him “The most remarkable Englishman of his generation.” The sentiment survives today: on the sex lives of contemporary artists, the same paper recently quipped, “Even strait-laced Middle England bottles its outrage, accepting this side-effect of genius.”
Yet art critics and historians have often argued that the stories of artists’ wild sex lives are often overblown, the product of oversized egos and reputations. As the English conceptual artist Dinos Chapman recently said, “The truth is that artists aren’t that special. People just like to think so— especially artists.” Belatedly awaiting justice under house arrest, Polanski may yet find that to be true.