on art and its existence in isolation

On International Women’s Day, a critical look at the cultural implications of art after #MeToo

Almost three years have passed following Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Fox News and a tweet that ignited a firestorm of sexual abuse and sexual harassment accusations that culminated in the #MeToo movement.

It exploded into a tidal wave of social protests all over the world, with ancillary movements not just focused on harassment but on equality and agency and expression — the “rice bunny” movement in China that flourished despite strict censorship, the push for better sex education in South Korea, the ongoing fight to have survivor stories heard in France, the crusade against sexist dress codes in Japan.

Almost every industry has had experienced its own reckoning — media, comedy, tech, education, military, medicine, animation, even ballet. Mine is no exception: Ted Royers, the Chief Creative Officer of ad agency Droga5, was fired in response to sexual harassment allegations against him (in a cruel twist of irony, Droga5 was responsible for the creation of The New York Times’ moving “The Truth Has a Voice” campaign for women’s equality). But it’s a sobering reminder that these men are everywhere, and that they’ve built systems that work hard to obscure truth to keep them in power. It’s a reminder of how many industries are shaped by these systems of abuse.

The heat of #MeToo has retreated somewhat, but a prominent practical dilemma remains — what do we do with good work by terrible people?

Two years ago, I wrote a Minute Thoughts, in which I questioned whether art could be enjoyed independently of its problematic creators:

The #MeToo movement raises a lot of thorny questions, but among them is one I’m always conflicted about: Can you really separate the art from the artist? Should we not watch That ’70s Show or Woody Allen movies or anything under the Weinstein Company umbrella? Should we not stream Chris Brown on Spotify? One of my friends said she would still listen to her favorite artist on Spotify even if they were problematic, because so little revenue comes from Spotify, so it’s a lesser impact than, say, buying a concert ticket. Another one of my friends argued that you can’t really separate the art from the artist, because art is a reflection of the artist. But I think it comes down to how much art is worth to us. And that extends to other things too. How much is convenience or fun worth? Should we use Lyft over Uber? Should we not go to Coachella and not eat at Chick-fil-A?

And as the narrative of workplace sexual misconduct and the pursuit of justice continues to unfold, now that we have the benefit of distance, it’s time to have a critical discussion about what to do with the things produced by the people implicated in the #MeToo movement. How do we treat works considered culturally significant but created by unsavory people? How do their sins affect their legacies? This piece started as an argument against consuming art from controversial artists in the wake of #MeToo, but it quickly became a much more fundamental issue — whether or not we can truly reduce art to its aesthetic value alone. In other words, does context matter?

It’s a complex question that rests upon a few key considerations, the first of which is that the artist and his work should exist and be evaluated in two separate spaces. But this premise is inherently flawed; once art is created, it is intrinsically commodified and subsequently exists in a singular space — the public space.

A.O. Scott wrote a beautifully articulate piece in The New York Times called “My Woody Allen Problem,” in which he asserts that, “…the notion that art belongs to a zone of human experience somehow distinct from other human experiences is both conceptually incoherent and intellectually crippling. Art belongs to life, and anyone — critic, creator or fan — who has devoted his or her life to art knows as much.”

Art informed by the artist’s worst impulses, like the rape jokes in Louis C.K.’s standup, Kevin Spacey’s performance in American Beauty, or Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which explores a relationship between a 42-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl, cannot simply be dismissed as creative brilliance unspoiled by their creators’ predatory and misogynistic tendencies. Art is as much a reflection of the artist as it is a form of expression. When we engage with the creation of an artist, we are complicit in fulfilling its purpose; we allow art the power to affect us. And by permitting this art to exist independently of the circumstances that led to its creation, we implicitly endorse the misbehavior of artists; it sends the message that we don’t care how or why it was created — its existence is the only thing that matters.

Art cannot be entirely separated from its context because it is inherently a product of it — it is a reflection of the artist and their thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Art and meaning are inextricable, and to ignore this out of cognitive ease is not only selfish but willfully ignorant of the way we consume art.

Claire Dederer wrote one of the best essays I’ve read on the subject for The Paris Review, called “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?”, in which she ruminates on a rewatching of Woody Allen’s Manhattan and questions which perspective is the “correct” one. Artistic authority — which demands that you judge purely on artistic merit and view the work as an entity independent of its history — or deeply empathetic, which acknowledges art as a product of intentional creation, one which showcases the artist’s personal urges:

A great work of art brings us a feeling. And yet when I say Manhattan makes me feel urpy, a man says, No, not that feeling. You’re having the wrong feeling. He speaks with authority: Manhattan is a work of genius. But who gets to say? Authority says the work shall remain untouched by the life. Authority says biography is fallacy. Authority believes the work exists in an ideal state (ahistorical, alpine, snowy, pure). Authority ignores the natural feeling that arises from biographical knowledge of a subject. Authority gets snippy about stuff like that. Authority claims it is able to appreciate the work free of biography, of history. Authority sides with the (male) maker, against the audience.

But there’s a reason that we have placards in art galleries that tell us the artist, date, and title. It’s why painters write personal statements and musicians make album booklets and filmmakers give commentary. It’s why presidential portraits are a matter of national analysis. Because on a fundamental level, we care about the emotions and motivations that prompted the creation of something worth admiring. And sometimes, our interpretation of art is entirely dependent on context.

The wealth of information available to us allows for an appreciation of the creative process that simply didn’t exist before. We have access to context that informs our understanding of culture-like Surviving R. Kelly, Leaving Neverland, and Wild Wild Country or “The Interpreter” newsletter, which explains the significance of current events through the lens of global history, culture, and society. The contemporary true crime obsession is a product of the desire for more of that context, to understand how monstrosity is born out of humanity, because trajectory of a phenomenon is just as interesting as the phenomenon itself. And with access comes responsibility — the responsibility to use that context in our interpretation of the world as it is. We have the stories and the capacity for reasoning and abstract thought; it is our obligation as educated consumers to put it to use.

Context is what gives art value, and artists frequently use it to their advantage for personal gain, whether that means highlighting their own suffering to elevate their craft and imbue their work with meaning, or using their fame and privilege to mistreat vulnerable people. The idea that genius is an indication of goodness is a false moral equivalency, and women are often its greatest victims.

The abuse of women at the hands of powerful Hollywood icons is a sort of open secret — these stories are always dismissed as trite biographical details to be ignored in any true assessment of merit, or deemed necessary suffering to create great art. But for the women who suffer them, who are pushed to their limits for the sake of cinematic greatness, it can have devastating and long-lasting consequences: Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando sexually violating Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris without her consent, Quentin Tarantino choking and spitting on Uma Thurman in Kill Bill to get a more authentic reaction, Stanley Kubrick forcing Shelley Duvall to film 127 takes of a scene in The Shining which cut her acting career short and ultimately destroyed her mental health. The “separation of art and artist,” it seems, only comes into play when it conveniently glosses over the abuse and exploitation required to get a project made.

In her critically acclaimed Netflix special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby takes aim at art history, specifically Picasso, who she scorches in a particularly damning takedown about whether his contributions to art should outweigh his mistreatment of women and his affair with a 17-year-old girl when he was 45 years old.

Separate the man from the art. That’s what I keep hearing. You’ve got to learn to separate the man from the art. The art is important, not the artist. You’ve got to learn to separate the man from the art. Yeah, all right. Okay. Let’s give it a go. How about you take Picasso’s name off his little paintings and see how much his doodles are worth at auction? Fucking nothing! Nobody owns a circular Lego nude, they own a Picasso! Sorry.

This is where the myth of genius fails. Not only is it grotesque to measure the value of talent against the value of human life, but when your genius hurts other people, it no longer matters. If you can only create art at someone else’s expense, perhaps we would be better off without it. To separate a man from his art is to entrust power and the benefit of the doubt to those who neither need nor deserve it.

When the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, Vox published a piece called “How to think about consuming art made by sexual predators,” which asserts that simply removing all offensive content represents an overly simplistic fix to a socially and morally complex problem:

But the decisions by the entertainment industry to pull shows represent a flattened version of an important debate. The industry clearly bears responsibility for making sure the perpetrators are removed from positions of power … Despite the erasures, audiences still have to navigate their relationship to the art that remains available. We all have to evaluate how we relate to it both externally and internally (as I’ve come to think of it). By “externally,” I mean: What is the significance of consuming-and therefore supporting, financially or in terms of prestige-the art of a sexual predator? By “internally,” I mean: How does it change the experiences of consuming that art?

It ultimately concludes its manifesto with a suggestion: Make the works available, so viewers can decide. I agree with this, to an extent. I don’t think censorship is practical or reasonable; I do think it’s our responsibility to evaluate our consumption of artistic material both “internally and externally,” and we should have a right to access it in order to do so. But I also think there’s a problem with allowing the art to exist exactly as it did before; it tacitly excuses the transgressor’s behavior and distracts from the issue itself.

This piece from The Daily Wire examines American Beauty’s “look closer” motif in light of the allegations against Kevin Spacey, characterizing the idea of separation of art from the flaws of the artists as “a con man’s principle”:

…by [Spacey’s] own admission, the character reflected something deep within himself he desired to lay bare before the world, as if searching for redemption in the ugliness of an objectively indecent act. Perhaps if we all just looked a little closer, we’d see there’s “real beauty” to be found.

But the problem is not just monstrous impulses made beautiful by art-it’s not exactly fair to brand someone a predator on the basis of work alone-it is our desperation to preserve the art for the sake of aesthetic value alone.

What Jeet Heer and Josephine Livingstone of The New Republic, who offer an analysis of Scott’s essay, smartly identify and Scott misses, is that Woody Allen’s power is not derived from his filmmaking alone in a vacuum; when his movies are released into society and become a part of great cinematic canon, we give him that power by constantly trying to decipher his work, 40 years later:

The problem with the way we talk about Woody Allen is not in accidentally saying he is good when he is bad, or bad when he is good-either as a man or as a filmmaker. No, the problem is in giving him the keys to the kingdom of moviemaking. The problem with Allen is his power. The same power that enables him to make artistic choices, and to remain the be-all-and-end-all of “what his movies mean,” also empowers him to do whatever he likes, including abuse vulnerable people. Does that make sense? It’s all the same power. And only recognizing that Woody Allen doesn’t get to control what Woody Allen movies mean can really take that power away.

By extolling men like Woody Allen as infallible auteurs or evaluating their work independent of the controversy it causes, we submit to immersing ourselves in their worlds, on their terms. But with a critical moral lens, we seek a deeper understanding of the desires and perspectives that have informed the work, and understand why it shouldn’t be rewarded.

Some people suggest a retrospective disclaimer on every piece created by a problematic artist, like the L.A. Times’ reflections on its response to Japanese internment on the 75th anniversary or Warner Brothers’ disclaimers of racial and ethnic stereotypes in Looney Tunes. In theory, these are effective-they help the consumers understand how to interpret these works, and contextualize the mistakes of the creators without compromising artistic integrity.

But in actuality, disclaimers are logistically complicated — do we forever brand the product of the work of hundreds of people as unwatchable because of one person? Is there reason for a disclaimer on Woody Allen movies, given that he’s never technically been convicted of a crime? And should we equate morality with legality?

A museum in Los Angeles that displayed the works of Carl Andre, an artist accused of murdering his girlfriend Ana Mendieta, doesn’t seek to answer any of these questions; instead it treated his crimes as another dimension of the lens through which his work should be viewed. As visitors entered the museum, they were handed cards that read, “Carl Andre is at Moca Geffen. ¿Dónde está Ana Mendieta?”:

These performative protests manage to go beyond the question of Andre’s guilt or innocence to address the very art institutes whose values they’re holding up to question. They demonstrate a gathering disquiet and sensitivity around the way Mendieta’s work was long neglected after her death, in contrast to the way Andre’s work continued to be lauded without so much as a blink.

While some argue against the museum framing Andre’s art in the context of his indiscretions, it’s worth nothing that museum officials are not merely exhibitors; they are curators. It is their job to tell a story — the whole story — to help patrons understand the conditions under which art is created.

Many people ask: Why should we care so much? What’s the harm in allowing people to freely create things in which other people find joy?

My friend made an excellent point that I 100% agree with: that by living and working in and profiting from a society, you enter into an implicit social contract in which you agree to follow the rules. She argued that “no matter what the so-called artistic merit of your work is, you shouldn’t be allowed to let people see your work and appreciate you if you aren’t going to be a decent human being.”

Twitter user @elizaskinner said it very succinctly:

Fame and an entertainment career aren’t basic human rights. If you abuse people, I don’t think you deserve one of the most coveted positions in society. Go work in a bank or a Jimmy Johns or something. You’ve forfeited your right to spread ideas because you’ve proven your ideas are VERY BAD.

In fact, the notion of celebrity as an aspiration is a dangerous game, because it creates an implicit sense of trust-it was Michael Jackson’s starpower that made him such a magnetic figure and allowed him access to vulnerable children; his status as a pop culture icon led these children’s families to believe that he was trustworthy, and he exploited this trust to manipulate and sexually abuse young boys:

In light of such activities, Jackson’s preoccupation with children was often cast as an eccentric but ultimately benevolent quirk of an eccentric but ultimately benevolent entertainer … In reality, it appears these endeavors created a blurring of Jackson’s charitable work with children and the more sinister sides of his fascination, which undoubtedly worked to his advantage. One of the most sickening things about Leaving Neverland is its forceful implication that all of these endeavors, charitable and non-, were effectively grooming grounds for Jackson’s alleged victims.

And in an attention economy in which public spectacle is rewarded and likes and views can be converted to real fame and wealth, e.g. the Kardashians, we cannot be cavalier about our part in contributing to it. We can sign petitions, march in protests, wear black, but by still consuming art made by problematic people, we signal that, to a degree, it doesn’t really matter that much anyway. Ultimately, money and attention are the only form of currency that really matters.

No one is staying stop consuming art altogether, or even to stop consuming art made by terrible people. The point is to consume it critically-you don’t have to stop watching them, but maybe, knowing what you know now, dig a little deeper into why movies like Manhattan are supremely uncomfortable; take a moment to empathize with the victims and evaluate what the film means in a cultural context.

I like Judd Apatow’s assessment of it in The New York Times article “Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey: Rebuked. Now What Do We Do With Their Work?”:

“We all have an instinct to instantly try to figure out how to redeem all these people and still be able to enjoy all this work, and it’s a very selfish instinct … All our energy should be with the victims. What happened to them? How did people handle this? What could we do going forward to support them in a productive way?”

There’s no one simple answer for this, but The College of New Jersey may have an answer, exemplified by its method of dealing with sexual assault — an approach based on restorative justice, which prioritizes the healing of survivors over assigning punishment to a perpetrator. Some people accused of misconduct are assigned to work with therapists to teach them about consent and healthy relationships; others “[undergo] alcohol or drug education, [learn] about the neurobiology of sexual assault, or read an impact statement explaining how the other person was hurt by what happened.”

But regardless of what it looks like, we have to be committed to helping victims of sexual misdeeds find peace, rather than reflexively seeking redemption for their perpetrators. As Heer and Livingstone put it:

But we can’t fire Balanchine. All we can do is rewatch his old dances, and ponder how the dancers we’re watching (often performing stories of romantic agony) were both Balanchine’s essential collaborators and his victims. Put another way: To the living we owe justice, to the dead reappraisal.

In the wake of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna’s extremely tragic deaths, it’s important to feel for Vanessa Bryant and the three daughters left behind. But it’s equally important to reserve empathy for his assault victim, and to remember that Kobe will always be lionized as a legend and she will always be shamed, harassed, and verbally abused by his fanbase. It is worth noting that the legacy of beloved public figures is often rewritten by the tragedy of their deaths in an effort to preserve their memories. And the cruel irony of his untimely death is that to his most ardent protectors, all criticisms of his accuser — liar, attention-seeker, scorned ex-lover trying to damage his career — are validated; any lingering resentment or trauma will now be treated as nothing more than attempts to tarnish his legacy.

But in times like these, we should again consider the victim, and give benefit of the doubt accordingly. We can simultaneously accept people as great artists, leaders, and icons and as bad people; we can hate what they’ve done without diminishing or erasing their contributions to their respective industries. Learning how to reconcile these conflicting emotions requires a significant amount of emotional intelligence and cognitive strain, but that’s a part of being a human.

Artists exist to create things for public consumption, and so it is our collective responsibility as consumers to dictate the type of content we want to see. We cannot pretend that our choices are insignificant in shaping the cultural landscape; especially in such a competitive industry, it is our moral imperative to support good artists who are also good people — those who contribute a positive presence in society, and not just their artistic talents. Art will continue to exist, but we as the audience ultimately decide what succeeds and how much power it holds over us. We don’t necessarily have to agree with art for it to be valuable. But we should also be aware that by supporting terrible artists, we directly give them power in their domain.

There is no one satisfying answer as to how we should handle these things. And ultimately, it is your choice. Jia Tolentino, essayist author of Trick Mirror, posits that in deciding a course of action, there is a constant calculation of needs, freedoms, and desires in flux:

When dealing with [predatory men], you have to think: One, who is the man in question? Two, what is your relation to their work? What’s your freedom to leave it behind? And what’s your desire to leave it behind?

There will never be a cut-and-dry solution, no one-size-fits-all rule you can apply, because the justice system is not always just, and boycotting a film or TV show because of one person ignores the hard work of all of the innocent people involved who are just trying to make a paycheck. Harvey Weinsten’s conviction was a hollow victory, and it still doesn’t solve the problem of all things made under his name — to reject any project he ever touched is callously reductive and likely punishes the wrong people. But the one grim silver lining is that we finally have some insight into the vastly powerful systems that have enabled abusers for so long, and we are finally finding both the vocabulary and strength to reject them.

We need to decide what art is really worth to us, and whether our entertainment is worth perpetuating a toxic culture that values artistic worth more than safety and basic human decency and puts real lives at stake. The calculation we make, and are always making, is the cost of protecting people that violate the basic tenets of a working society.

In Nanette, Gadsby challenges us to think of the representation missing in conversations about art, and how that limits the way we understand ourselves and each other. She asks us to imagine a world in which the feelings and artistic mastery of women are considered equal to men. Our definition of what is culturally acceptable is — and should be! — continuously evolving, and progress demands that we adapt as well.

We go to movies to enter another world, to exist in a space where our emotions are manipulated and social implications are nonexistent. But just as important is re-orienting ourselves in the real world, in which art is a reflection of the ugliest injustices of life, in which actions have consequences and our money and attention have power. To confront our own cognitive dissonance, to re-examine our own impulses, is uncomfortable. But we owe it to the survivors to be asking these questions. We need to be having more of these conversations, because it is how we actively decide what kind of society we want to be.

Originally published at https://www.jayemsey.com on March 8, 2020.

writer, strategist, creator, curious cat | http://jayemsey.com

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