on art and its existence in isolation

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

jennifer mei


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…