The “art vs. artist” debate should end with 2017
A bleak joke has been circulating on Twitter in recent months. The wording varies, but the most common version goes something like this: “2016: The year all your favorite celebrities died. 2017: The year all your favorite celebrities became dead to you.” It’s a glib yet fitting summation of how the pop-cultural conversation has shifted. This time in 2016, we were eulogizing our idols. Now we’re chopping their heads off ourselves, and with good reason.
We’ve had to reckon with our admiration of art by alleged sexual harassers, rapists and abusers (not to mention misogynists, racists, homophobes and scumbags of all varieties) before. There was Bill Cosby and R. Kelly and Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Some might generously call Chris Brown’s bland R&B or Terry Richardson’s creepshots “art.” The monstrous behavior of dead geniuses like John Lennon and Alfred Hitchcock is now common knowledge. Those revelations sparked soul-searching debates over whether we could keep enjoying Rosemary’s Baby or The Cosby Show and still consider ourselves decent human beings.
It’s a rich topic and one that’s fascinated me for years. To what extent do our tastes implicate us? But the torrent of allegations that has dominated the news since early October has suddenly made the so-called “art vs. artist” debate irrelevant. We’re realizing that if you want to avoid any work of art that’s been touched by a predator, you have to avoid just about every work of art.
I used to make rules for myself. Although I’d stop subsidizing the careers of artists who turned out to be abusers, there was no point in erasing all signs I’d ever been their fan. (I’m not the first to point out one of the worst responses to a famous pig’s unmasking is, “I never liked his work anyway.” Congratulations on your superior creepdar?) So I could keep my Annie Hall DVD, but no way was I spending money to see Café Society.
The way I saw it, the compromise made sense both pragmatically and morally: Wasn’t I obligated to reflect on how Allen had shaped my worldview? Never mind that I haven’t forced myself to revisit Allen’s most alarming classic, Manhattan, because the thought of watching Allen’s 42-year-old character date a high schooler makes my skin crawl.
In retrospect, the limitations of this brand of purity politics should’ve been obvious. As fall 2017 has forced us to realize, there are more monsters in creative industries than we’d ever dared to consider. And there’s no way to separate an individual creator from the people who support them. Sure, you can boycott Polanski movies. But are you also going steer clear of films by his collaborators? (Eva Green stars in his most recent release, Based on a True Story, which he cowrote with Personal Shopper filmmaker Olivier Assayas.)
Have you watched the last episode of The Good Place? Because NBC, the network it airs on, gave Matt Lauer $25 million a year and, reportedly, a button under his desk so he could lock women inside his office without having to get up. Among the hundreds of movies Harvey Weinstein had a hand in are Fruitvale Station, Carol, Silver Linings Playbook, The English Patient and literally everything Quentin Tarantino has ever made.
At the risk of using an inside joke to make a serious point, there is no ethical consumption under patriarchy, either.
Art forms that aren’t as obviously collaborative are not exempt from this. For visual artists, there are gallerists, dealers, museum curators, wealthy patrons. Writers have agents, editors, editorial boards, designers, printers, publications and publishers. Some of these artists are ensconced in academic institutions. Then there are the publicity machines that market their work and the critics who evangelize it to the public.
Of course, not everyone involved in selling an abusive author or painter is knowingly complicit. But you also have keep in mind that it’s possible, maybe even likely, someone in a position of power at just about every large organization — whether it’s a world-class museum or a publishing company owned by a multinational media conglomerate — is a predator. If we’ve learned one thing recently, it’s that sexual misconduct in the workplace an epidemic.
As those hilarious socialist memes keep reminding us, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. If you have the money to wear sustainably grown cotton that was picked, processed, sewn and shipped by people who are all earning a living wage, you’re still undoubtedly rich enough to be complicit in labor exploitation or the destruction of the environment in some other way. Well, at the risk of using an inside joke to make a serious point, there is no ethical consumption under patriarchy, either. We can avoid all art made by abusers — or even all art made by men — and still be implicated somehow.
The point isn’t that we should all give up and see Allen’s new movie, Wonder Wheel, whose theatrical rollout is somehow proceeding as though the post-Weinstein fallout never happened. I’ll probably stick to my old rule about disgraced artists, but with the awareness that what I’m doing is helping me sleep at night, rather than enacting any meaningful systemic change.
At this point, the “art vs. artist” debate feels naive and, worse, narcissistic. Maybe it always has been. We’d be better off devoting the time we spend worrying about whether we can still watch old episodes of Louie to going after the harassers, abusers and rapists in our own professional and personal circles. We can lobby to make our industries more inclusive at every level. We can tell our own stories.
We can promote the work of the people these men victimized, who deserve to be known better for their own contributions than for what some creep did to them. (Impressed by Asia Argento’s courage in speaking out about Weinstein? Watch one of the movies she directed. Take in her greatest performance, in director Catherine Breillat’s 2007 masterpiece The Last Mistress, which is now on FilmStruck.) Or we can make art ourselves, because the world needs to hear more from people principled enough to interrogate their own complicity in patriarchal violence.
The past two months have made it clear there is a time for thought-provoking debate and symbolic renunciation — and there is a time for action. The #MeToo movement has generated enough momentum, by now, that we can all take some small role in pushing it forward. If we happen to be listening to “Ignition (Remix)” while we do that, maybe that isn’t such a big deal.