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Auteurism Keeps Abusive Men In Power–It’s Time To Call It Out

It’s time to finally let go of the myth of the infallible creative genius.

Auteurism Keeps Abusive Men In Power–It’s Time To Call It Out
[Source Image: Taylor Callery/Getty Images]

Slowly but surely, every industry is having its #MeToo moment. After emerging in Hollywood with the fall of Harvey Weinstein, the movement has reached tech, sports, politics, academia, cuisine, and, most recently, the stately institution of architecture.

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All of these industries have two things in common: One, men are predominantly in power. And two, those who are in power are a lot more than your average boss. They’re considered visionaries. Unquestionable geniuses. Or my favorite term for the phenomenon, coined by American film critic Andrew Sarris in the mid-20th century: auteurs.

Every project an auteur touch becomes magically imbued with their sensibility, as if they’ve authored the entire thing singlehandedly. In turn, it’s no one’s right to question an auteur. Instead, you must stand back and allow their masterpieces to unfurl. You must celebrate an auteur’s lack of compromise, and their uncanny ability to get others to bend to their will.

So far, culture is chewing on the realities of point one–the true face of men. But it still seems to be overlooking the damage of point two–that the throne of the auteur so perfectly crowns his worst impulses.

Richard Meier [Photo: David X Prutting/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images]
Look at the recent scandal around architect Richard Meier. You may know him best for his work on the Getty Center in L.A. But over the past five decades, he’s won virtually every award in architecture, having designed buildings in 20 countries across the globe. To design a museum, cultural center, or business tower is a massive undertaking, well outside the scope of a single person. So Meier employs 61 other architects and designers at his firm Richard Meier & Partners Architects. But do we know their names? I certainly don’t. Meier is an auteur.

Systematically, we’ve come to expect that architecture is just like this. We prize Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry for their individual creative heroism, building their legend atop the toil of their own employees. It can be demoralizing for any young architect to sit namelessly inside a cubicle, contributing to someone else’s legacy. But time and time again, the men who see themselves as creative gods also treat others as if the rules don’t apply to them. We see that articulated through the stream of sexual harassment and abuse allegations levied against some of the most famous auteurs in the world. The systemized anonymity of people in an auteur’s orbit works in service of their predatory behavior. What can a mere peon say to a king?

Mario Batali [Photo: USDA Flickr]
The problem of the auteur is not unique to architecture. Many creative industries are all embedded with the same inequity. There’s the genius spearheading the project, and then there’s everyone else. In cuisine, there are chefs like Mario Batali, whose name sits on 26 different restaurant brands. There are well over a thousand people who contribute to his vision of Italian cuisine (not including those who produce his cookbooks, pasta sauces, and olive oils). Long before Weinstein, we had the film auteurs Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Their films are well known, but the crews that made these films possible, besides the A-list actors involved, probably don’t roll off your tongue. The film community still largely turns a blind eye to its own auteurs because it seems to only know how to market films through the lens of a few artistic heroes. Recently, Cannes banned Netflix projects from competing in the prestigious festival, but Roman Polanski was honored by the festival just last year.

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Will the reign of the auteur ever come to an end? Putting more women into powerful creative positions will undoubtedly help eliminate some of the most notorious abuse. But it’s not enough. We must collectively abandon this dated creative archetype that champions a single person over the work of a collective. We need to credit teams over visionaries. In architecture, we’ve seen some firms drop their partner-centric names–for instance, a few years ago Polshek Partnership rechristened itself Ennead. In Hollywood, concepts like the inclusion rider–which mandate diversity on set–might subtly challenge auteurism simply because they put more perspectives in the same room. The media and publishing world, as well as the curatorial industry, also have a role to play in lifting up teams over individuals.

These ideas alone are not perfect answers, but they’re a beginning to acknowledging an intrinsic fact about creative culture: Yes, there are some very brilliant people in this world. But like all brilliant people, they stand on the shoulders of giants. Namely, you and me.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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