The #metoo Movement and the Case for Separating Art from the Artist

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In the era that will likely be remembered in history books as “the rise of #metoo” or “the start of #timesup”, it’s easy to feel lost when it comes to some of our favorite pieces of art being attached to people or actions we find abhorrent and detestable.

It began with Harvey Weinstein last fall, but ever since the floodgates opened it has slowly become very clear that no cow is sacred, no statue is beyond toppling and no one’s past is safely held anymore in their closet of shrieking skeletons. The proverbial skeletons have a voice now, and they’ve certainly got no vested interest in going back to the closet from whence they came.

On a grand scale this phenomenon amounts to nothing less than a true social revolution, one that we are lucky enough to witness and benefit from in our own life times. However, there is a flip side to the empowerment and freedom that has been unleashed under the banners of #metoo and #timesup.

Rose McGowan is among dozens of actresses who have accused producer Harvey Weinstein of everything from sexual misconduct to rape.

The question has often been raised over the last year or so, even before the Weinstein saga began, as to what we do with the works of those we have come to denigrate, disrespect or even outright despise due to their actions. This is akin to the age old tale of Saul, who had the scales fall from his eyes and was never able to see the world the same way again. Now that we know there is a systemic undercurrent of abuse, assault and rape beneath the surfaces of some of our favorite works of art, what are we to do with the information and how it changes the things we love?

As usual, the issues we often struggle with ourselves in the aftermath of great social change and strife are those of the more mundane variety. Still that doesn’t change their relevance or sense of importance to us, and many have found themselves wondering what to do with the TV shows created by Joss Whedon, the films directed by Quentin Tarantino or the many stand-up specials of Louis CK.

Now these examples may seem widely disparate, but the insane range of revelations occurring over the course of the last 6-12 months against those in the entertainment industry has caused a wide range of backlash, and calls have been made by social media comments, think pieces and fans alike of all three to toss their works aside, regardless of the differences in their infractions.

Recent accusations against Quentin Tarantino for abuses of power have called much of his work into question.

Might I suggest something else? The solution, if you are able to apply it, is actually quite simple. There’s a reason why the phrase “separate the art from the artist” is not an unfamiliar one, especially in times like these, where new allegations are surfacing with each passing day. We wouldn’t tear down a house because it had something bad happen in it after all, would we?

Okay, maybe that’s a bad example, but it is an appropriate one. Yes, houses of ill repute, where unspeakable things have occurred and untold sufferings have been endured, are occasionally torn down in order to heal a community that doesn’t need the reminder of an atrocity every time they open their front door or walk down the street.

In some ways it’s a very natural instinct for people to want to bury the things that trouble them — to break them down, tear them apart and scatter them to the winds, both literally and figuratively. With that said, though, there is a risk involved in that act: it’s the notion that we may actually lose something in the process.

Does the world of cinema benefit from tossing away works like Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris because we know that Woody Allen is a creep? What about films like Chinatown and  The Ghost Writer? Should they be tossed aside because Roman Polanski has long been confirmed as a man who plied a 13 year old girl with drugs before having his way with her? If not, why on earth haven’t they been?

Roman Polanski’s statutory rape and drugging of a 13 year old girl has rightly cast a shadow over much of his life’s work.

There is certainly an argument to be made that the reason is that, as Bob Dylan once put it: the times they are a-changin’. However if works are to be judged by those who created them, and how we perceive their morals based on their actions, then what other things would we have to throw away in the process?

I happen to be an avid fan of the works of both Oscar Wilde and HP Lovecraft but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice the obvious prejudices and racial implications of their works when read through a modern lens. Both writers casually toss characters of Jewish or African descent into their stories, with the former characterized as sneaky and money hungry, and the latter personified by primal impulses and old world superstitions.

In our modern age we recognize these elements of great works like The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Call of Cthulhu with the aid of time and reflection, but we don’t hurl their source material from our book shelves in disgust. These works are still taught in high schools and universities today, just with the caveat that they must be examined and dissected as representations of those who are responsible for them.

This is a very reasonable way of handling a troubling revelation about a once-respected figure. Because I personally have a problem with Donald Trump and everything he stands for, does that mean that every piece of real estate he owns should be torn down if I had my way? Of course not. His spirit does not, after all, live in the walls of a building just because he owns it or paid for it to be built.

Look, we all hate the guy, but would you tear a building down just because it was owned by Donald Trump?

Similarly, because a person who has done something bad has created something we like, we shouldn’t be so eager to disregard their work forever. The idea that someone’s ill deeds infect their life’s work is an archaic one fueled by superstition and suspicion. It’s the sort of notion that might lead us to hate a child for his parents, his name, or, ironically, his country. It’s a prejudice of its own.

It’s black and white thinking, the type that suggests that the notions of good and evil are concrete concepts rather than ideas. The truth is that we use those ideas to simplify the world. If Adolf Hitler can paint a picture that would be otherwise lovely, were it not associated with him, then it seems obvious that we needn’t associate any work of art with only the worst elements of its creator.

In the age of #metoo are we also to throw aside the great works of Martin Luther King, who was a well-known philanderer? Or Mahatma Gandi, who obviously had very clear racial problems with Africans during his life? What about the overflowing fount of slave-owners that have been party to the world we now live in, including the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington?

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash musical Hamilton set out to examine and address those last inconsistencies very well. It presented a world wherein the achievements of such men could be examined and questioned without throwing their entire legacy in the garbage as a trade-off.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda showed in his work, Hamilton, it’s perfectly fine to accept someone’s achievements while also questioning their morals.

Similarly, on a more fictional note, Harper Lee set out to examine and dispel the rumor that Atticus Finch was nothing more than an upstanding fighter for civil rights and equality in her final book, a sequel to the endlessly optimistic To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Ultimately, you’ll find the easiest modern analog in fans of someone like Kanye West, of which this writer is one. West is an eccentric, a self-admitted egotist, and someone who is prone to loudly shouting opinions at even the most mundane of matters. However, his music is still some of the best hip-hop you’ll find in this day and age, and his ambition to change the game and try new things is beyond the pale in a genre that often boils down to juvenile penis-measuring competitions and petty insult contests.

If you are one of the millions of folks who hate West, I won’t try to convince you otherwise. As with all of the matters above, you’re perfectly entitled to your opinion, but I would urge you to give something like Runaway a look before you make your final judgment.

Kanye West has long been known to run his mouth off without thinking through the potential ramifications of what he is saying but that doesn’t take away from the brilliance of his music.

No person is totally defined by their worst moments, worst acts, or worst opinions. These negative elements are things we should absolutely keep in mind when we consider the works of artists we once loved and respected, but they are not cause to gather in the parks and alleyways for book-burnings.

Take what you have learned about those you once admired and use it as a new lens under which to examine their work, not as a torch to set a fire to everything they’ve ever done. Existing work can always be looked over again and again by a new eye, and with a new perspective. Ashes, however, will remain ashes, no matter how long we stare at them.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he’s still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there’s hope for him, there’s hope for everyone. He’s the managing Games editor for Goomba Stomp, and the host of the Fire Keepers podcast.

  • John Cal McCormick says:

    First up, I think this is a great article.

    Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, to me, separating the art and the artist depends largely upon the nature of the crime. For example, not that I ever was a lostprophets fan, because they’re fucking rubbish, but if I were a lostprophets fan, I’d have to stop being a lostprophets fan on account of the lead singer wanting to rape babies. If he’d just stole a Twix from a supermarket, then I’d still not listen to them because they’re fucking rubbish, but I’d have less of a moral obligation for shunning them.

    One of the problems with this whole #metoo thing – and let’s be clear, I think it’s, for the most part, fantastic, and it will lead to a much brighter future for Hollywood – is that a bunch of people are all getting lumped together as though their crimes are all the same even though they’re patently not. Mob mentality on Twitter and in the media is only clouding the issue, and is ultimately counterproductive, but they’re acting like jackals and pouncing on anyone that shows a second of weakness. They’re firing machine guns wildly into the crowd and hitting everyone with the same bullets, and it’s like, okay, let’s settle down for a second before the good work that’s being done gets lost in the mayhem.

    Currently it’s Quentin Tarantino in the crosshairs. So yeah, Tarantino said some super questionable stuff about Roman Polanski, which was at worst victim blaming, and at best an incredibly poorly worded critique of the broadness of the word ‘rape’, legally speaking. He’s always seemed like a bit of a knob, and he’s definitely a weirdo, but I don’t think he should be getting thrown into the conversation with people like Harvey Weinstein, who systematically sexually assaulted people and then covered it up for years. That’s not to say that what he said was alright, because it was blates not, but every time we compare something like that to something like what Weinstein did we belittle the severity of that crime.

    To me, it’s always been the crime that determines whether or not I’ll continue to enjoy the art. It’s always been what they did and how and who to and how I feel about enjoying their stuff from here on out. Do I feel guilty listening to this song, or watching this movie, knowing the history of it? I feel happy watching Tarantino movies knowing that the guy who made them is a bit of a tail, but I’m not sure I feel quite so okay watching Louis CK now I know he forced women to watch him fiddle with himself. I don’t have an issue watching a Woody Allen movie or listening to Michael Jackson albums, even though both were investigated over child abuse but not found guilty, but I feel pretty weird about watching anything by Roman Polanski.

    It’s a case by case basis for me.

    • Mike Worby says:

      That’s totally fair. My cousin has said since he had kids he doesn’t feel right about watching Woody Allen movies and I think that’s perfectly reasonable. I’m simply advocating that we treat problematic artists and they’re works separately but I certainly see how the waters can get a bit muddied for some depending on the crime.

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