If you read a lot of pop criticism and entertainment journalism, you’ll be a familiar with a debate about “separating the art from the artist” or some similar turn of phrase. This is a very old debate, but it’s come to occupy ever more space in discussions about art, especially popular art, in recent years. The main driving force behind its increasing prominence has been the proliferation of online publications covering entertainment news and producing reviews and criticism over the last ten or so years. Such platforms are making more information and commentary on the entertainment industry and more opinions about art available to more people than ever before. Over the years, plenty of people who make art have been exposed for doing bad things, and so naturally the issue of how we should relate to art made by bad people has come up pretty regularly in these publications.
But that was before Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (for the New York Times) and Ronan Farrow (for the New Yorker) exposed Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator. I don’t know why this one was the tipping point, but in the months since, dozens of other sexual predators working in the entertainment industry, in news media and in sports have been similarly exposed. In fact, there’s been a seemingly endless wave of revelations about powerful public figures – almost exclusively men, to no great shock – who have abused their power in order to sexually harass and assault other people, including minors.
What used to be a largely seasonal phenomenon of finding out a celebrity was a bad person, getting bombarded with thinkpieces about it and then forgetting about it when something else came along to make you anxious about the world has now become an apparently permanent state of revelation.
Obviously, that’s a good thing. I would never for a moment suggest otherwise. But it’s also been a deeply unpleasant thing in ways both particular to this topic and typical of the ecosystem of modern media. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like the more time goes by the more horror and absurdity and exhausting bullshit is getting funnelled into my weeping mouth by a news media who’s realised its only hope for survival is to make us all too anxious about the world to dare stop consuming news. Even when something of obvious moral value like this comes along, it’s part of this awful interlocking matrix of misery and cruelty and hate, and there’s a part of us that just wants to make it stop for the sake of our own sanity. But, more than that, these revelations are crazy-making because they keep throwing us in the deep end of this complex and seemingly irresolvable debate where no one is ever satisfied, over and over and over.
Is it morally okay to watch Woody Allen movies / listen to Chris Brown’s music / read poems by Allen Ginsberg when I know, or as well as know, that they’ve done terrible things to other people? This is the basic formula of the question, as a thousand thinkpieces have put it, and I’m not going to lie, it’s a question I’m nervous to write about. I wish I had the clarity and confidence of people who write articles laying out definitively exactly how permissible or not it is to consume the work of any given artist. Either they really have their shit together morally, or they’ve cracked how to fake it for money, and both seem like useful skills in life. But I don’t know how to feel about this question at all, even though I’ve been turning it over in my mind for years, and I suspect that’s the majority position among people who’ve even thought about it at all. As with most questions about art that are talked up a lot in online entertainment magazines, I assume that most people have never thought about it once, and if they have, they don’t care.
I do not have answers. I have flip-flopped so many times over the years on whether to watch Woody Allen movies in particular, and that’s just one guy. I let myself have a one-movie exemption for Annie Hall because it’s “important” or whatever, but that didn’t really help because his influence on film extends beyond Annie Hall, and besides, anytime critics divide movies into “important” and “not”, it makes me want to watch the movies that aren’t important. So many good movies have been dismissed as unimportant over the years that just doing the exact opposite of what film critics say to do has helped me find lots of my all-time favourite movies: Speed Racer was savaged by critics and I think it’s the best film of the past thirty years. Then I decided it was okay to watch his films because you should understand the history of a medium if you’re going to write about it, even when part of its history involves bad men. Caravaggio was a murderer, but you don’t just look away from his paintings if you want to write about painting. I watched Café Society and it sucked, and then I watched Annie Hall again because even though I didn’t like it the first time, sometimes it’s worth a second look, but I still didn’t like Annie Hall. And then I kept telling myself I’d watch The Purple Rose of Cairo next and now it’s a year later. I still don’t know whether or not I should watch more Woody Allen films, and the more I think about it, the less sure I am, because the more I think about it, the more questions I have. So, when I realised I needed to write something this topic, I decided to just ask some of my questions.
Some are questions I’ve seen asked and answered a thousand times, but never enough to persuade me. Some are questions I’ve never seen anyone else ask in the hundreds of articles I’ve seen written about this topic. Because I write mostly about film and TV, most of the questions are gonna be about film and TV, but lots of these questions also apply to other forms of art. However, several of them do not apply to other forms of art, because different forms of art are produced in different conditions, and some art is collaborative and some art isn’t, and so on. This is a non-exhaustive list, and neither covers all the questions I have, nor all the questions that need to be asked. If anyone has answers to these questions, please share them, because I’m losing my mind trying to figure out what to do, even though this seems like it should be a much easier moral question to work out than most.
In no particular order:
#1. What About Netflix?
There’s a whole area of the debate dedicated to the possible difference between supporting the work of bad people with your money and merely enjoying the work of bad people in a way that doesn’t compensate them for it. I don’t know what to do with that, really, because, for example, when I paid to see Hacksaw Ridge in the cinema, the whole cost of my ticket didn’t go directly into Mel Gibson’s pocket. The exact details of how ticket prices break down are extremely complicated, and vary from film to film, as outlined in this great article by data researcher Stephen Follows. I saw Hacksaw Ridge towards the end of its theatrical run, so most of what I paid for my ticket (€7) went to the cinema itself, to cover its running costs, pay its staff and profit its owners. I like cinemas and think it’s good when workers are compensated for their labour. But let’s say you don’t pay to see films in the cinema if you know they were made by bad people. Here’s a list of films currently on Netflix in Ireland made by the three directors most frequently brought up in these debates:
- Hacksaw Ridge, Apocalypto (dir. Mel Gibson)
- Annie Hall, Match Point, To Rome with Love (dir. Woody Allen)
- The Tenant (dir. Roman Polanski)
According to Netflix’s Top Investor Questions, they “generally license content for a fixed fee and a defined time period”, which means even if you don’t watch a movie on Netflix, part of what you pay for your Netflix subscription has probably found its way into the bank accounts of these directors. Watching a movie increases the chance that Netflix will renew the license and pay the directors more money, just as seeing a movie in the cinema makes them more likely to show it for longer, but with Netflix, you’ve already contributed to the wealth of the three most archetypally bad men in Hollywood. If people who say you shouldn’t pay to see movies made by bad people in the cinema are right, should we all be boycotting Netflix until they stop licensing movies made by bad people? I’ve seen people propose boycotts of Netflix over stuff to do with their original content, like the rape accusations against The Ranch star and producer Danny Masterson, but never over their hosting of content made by other people, even though Netflix spends way more on licensing than original content.
I’m not sure if an entertainment boycott could work anyway, since the industry is so monopolised, but as long as we’re talking about the ethics of consuming art, it feels weird to ignore how the way we consume art has changed.
#2. What About Ignorance?
I think a lot about the often-extreme insularity of people who write a lot about art. We spend more time consuming art, reading about art and talking about art than most people, and spend more time with other people who do those things too. I think a lot of writing about art suffers from a failure by its writers to step out of that frame of reference and try to understand how most people experience art.
Whenever I read an article about how people shouldn’t watch the movies of this or that director, I think about how most people I know couldn’t tell you who directed any of the last ten films they saw and how many of them couldn’t tell you who directed the best movie they’d ever seen. Although it’s less true of music or books, my sense of the world is that, for most people, a work of art and its artist are not particularly conjoined in the first place. What does it mean to say we should separate the art from the artist if you don’t know who the artist is?
The harm in enjoying the work of artists who are bad people is usually described as contributing either to their wealth or to their social and cultural capital, both of which are things that help bad people get away with doing bad things. Leaving aside the wealth question for a second, I’m not sure if just watching a movie by Roman Polanski improves his social and cultural capital. I can see how critics writing in praise of a Roman Polanski movie might do that, but if some guy in some apartment in some town sits down and watches Chinatown, enjoys it and then never really makes a load of big public statements in reputable publications about the genius of Roman Polanski, it’s hard to see how that guy supports Roman Polanski in any meaningful way.
In fact, it seems to me like a lot of what’s at issue in this debate has essentially no relevance to the vast majority of people. I don’t think most people give an outsize importance in their worldview to people who work in the entertainment industry. If that’s the case, I wonder if this is really an issue of general morality or a question of professional ethics for critics.
#3. What About The Death of the Author?
One of the more thoughtful flurries of writing on this question was kicked off by the New York Times’ A. O. Scott in an essay called “My Woody Allen Problem” about his long-time admiration of Woody Allen and his own struggle with the question of whether to separate art from artist. While I don’t agree with everything he says, his conclusion – that he, among others, must “start all over again” in order to understand Woody Allen’s films in light of these revelations – seems like the right one for A. O. Scott. But most of us haven’t based as much of our personal identities on our love of Woody Allen as A. O. Scott, so it’s not that useful an essay except for really big fans of Woody Allen.
Scott’s essay also doesn’t really engage with the arguments in favour of separating art from artist, so I was grateful for this discussion of the essay by New Republic staff writers Jeet Heer and Josephine Livingstone where those arguments are made pretty well by Livingstone. I recommend reading the whole discussion, but here’s the bit that struck me most:
First, I think that [Scott] misconstrues why the formalists and the reader-response folks wanted to separate the artist from the art: They wanted to undo the artist’s monopoly over the way we talk about their art. Not hand them a carte blanche to be monsters! It’s about power, not behavior. Second, I think that Scott misses something big, which is that he—and other critics who are letting the artist’s life dictate the meaning of their works—are, in every public “reassessment,” bolstering that contested artist’s monopoly over interpretation. Again, it’s about power… Their power to abuse, their power to dictate the terms of the conversation, their power to define what a field like moviemaking even is… I consider Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s movies gifts, to me and to the culture—even when they’re bad—and I’m never giving them back. I don’t want Allen and Polanski to have control over their own legacies or even over their own works. If they don’t get to dictate how I interpret their films, then they don’t get to control anything about the film industry. We, the viewers, do.
I think Livingstone slips into hyperbole here and elsewhere in the discussion when she says taking away interpretive power of artists will take away their institutional power within the industry, but otherwise this argument makes a lot of sense to me. It brings me back to how I felt last November when Jesse Lacey, the lead singer of Brand New, was accused of and admitted to sexual misconduct with minors. I’ve listened to Brand New for years, but I can say with complete certainty that Lacey’s crimes were the fourth thing I ever learned about him after his name, his age and the fact that he was in Taking Back Sunday before he was in Brand New. I’ve never been hugely invested in the lives of any artist I enjoy, even artists I would describe as heroes of mine, because they’re my heroes as artists, not as private individuals. When I saw a lot of people tweeting and eventually writing long articles about how it was impossible to separate the art from the artist because apparently a lot of fans of Brand New were super invested in Lacey’s personal life, I was mostly just confused. I’d never given Jesse Lacey much thought before. I didn’t have a relationship with Brand New outside of how I felt when I listened to their music. The idea of ditching it because Jesse Lacey did something wrong didn’t make sense to me and the more insistent people became that anyone who didn’t ditch it was an apologist for sexual abuse, the more insistent I became that I would go to my grave listening to “Okay, I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don’t”. After all, I thought, if Jesse Lacey is such a bad guy then why are you giving him a say over how you relate to his music?
The Scott essay helped me to understand the perspective of people who’ve over-invested personally in the lives of artists, while Livingstone articulated how I felt better than I could. My takeaway from both is that people should avoid getting too invested in the lives of artists in the first place because the least damage it can do is distort your critical lens and the most damage it can do is contribute to a system of power and privilege within the entertainment industry that enables abusers. But that’s easier said than done when so many people who write about art are already too invested in the lives of artists, and when so many publications that write about art are excessively deferential to creators. Alan Sepinwall of Uproxx had a “usual post-season interview” with Mike Schur, creator of Parks and Rec, and has kept up the practice with his latest show, The Good Place. Entertainment Weekly has an “annual pre-season interview” with Benioff and Weiss of Game of Thrones, which is even worse – at least Sepinwall and Schur let people watch the show first. Vulture cut out the middleman and just let Aziz Ansari recap his own TV show. I could go on, but it gets depressing after a while.
In his essay, A. O. Scott writes about the separation of art and artist as if it’s some sacred doctrine of his profession: “a cultural habit buttressed by shopworn academic dogma”. Someone should tell the entire entertainment news media and popular critical establishment that.
#4. What About Picking Something Up vs Putting Something Down?
The Scott essay and Heer/Livingstone discussion convinced me, more or less, that it’s okay to enjoy the art you already enjoy as long as you haven’t built your entire psyche around the creator of that art. But I’m still not sure what to do with Woody Allen, because engaging with his work when I don’t already like him feels like a different choice than continuing to enjoy the work of Brand New. This is another area where the discussion among critics feels very insular, because it’s always about how we should deal with Woody Allen given we’re already at least somewhat invested in his body of work, if not necessarily in him as a creator and cultural figure. But I’m a young critic trying to decide whether to give a shit about these movies in the first place, and it’s extra confusing because I really believe that more pop criticism needs a stronger sense of history, and so I want to be familiar with films that are undoubtedly a big part of the history of the medium, for better or worse, but I also don’t want to even accidentally give Woody Allen any more importance in the world. I also want to be an honest critic and would never watch Woody Allen movies just to trash them because he’s a bad person, but that means I might watch Woody Allen movies and like them and feel it necessary to praise them in the course of my writing, which feels weird to do.
Of course, as Heer points out in his half of the New Republic discussion, it’s not really fair to just call them Woody Allen movies, because film is a collaborative medium. Annie Hall is also a Diane Keaton film and a Marshall Brickman film and especially a Ralph Rosenblum film given it was famously transformed in editing from a murder mystery into a romantic comedy. Maybe the whole problem is that I’m thinking of Woody Allen films as “Woody Allen films” in the first place. But it also feels dishonest to act like Allen doesn’t have the most creative control over his films of almost any director working today. As Allen himself put it in an interview: “I often think I’ve pulled off a gigantic magic trick: somehow I’ve managed to fool enough people that I’ve been given complete creative control of my movies for forty years.”
I don’t know what it is that makes this question so hard to answer. I’m not going to be convinced of Woody Allen’s innocence if I really love The Purple Rose of Cairo. I’ve heard nothing but the most wonderful things about The Purple Rose of Cairo. Even a passing familiarity with the subject matter of The Purple Rose of Cairo tells me it’s right up my alley, but I can neither bring myself to watch The Purple Rose of Cairo nor to definitively swear off watching The Purple Rose of Cairo. I’m forever just about to watch The Purple Rose of Cairo, maybe, and yet anytime I feel like I might watch The Purple Rose of Cairo, I just watch something else instead.
#5. What About The Industry?
Sometimes I feel like whether or not it’s okay to watch a movie or listen to a song is one of the least relevant questions we should be asking about the whole “decades of conspiracy to cover up the crimes of serial sexual predators” issue. I’m not saying that how we as audiences or as critics relate to art and artists has played no role whatsoever in propping up a system in which rampant sexual harassment and assault – and other crimes – were permitted to continue for decades. But it seems almost narcissistic to think about these problems primarily through the lens of our own selves, or through the lens of any individual. We’re talking about a huge sector of the economy that has only just begun to reveal decades of rampant abuse, and we should be asking questions about the whole sector. Far more than cultural or professional respect, it’s the ability of abusers in the industry to generate profit for other people that empowers them to continue abusing and expect their abuse to be covered up. The only real solution to that problem is to decouple art from profit, but that’s a very long-term solution that will involve massive government action to reorganise the economy, and it feels like we’re still pretty far away from that. But there’s surely things that can be changed in the short-term to make abuse happen less.
Obviously, there are people organising toward achieving such changes, like Time’s Up, whose best policy is setting up a legal fund to help support survivors of workplace sexual harassment and assault in fighting back against their employers. But the entire way the entertainment industry works from top to bottom needs to be reconsidered. When I was in college, I wrote about how the trial of music producer Dr Luke for his sexual assault of singer Kesha highlighted the abusive power inherent in entertainment industry contracts because they forced people to remain in jobs, often for years of their life, at risk of financial penalties high enough to ruin the lives of anyone not already wealthy. People who are already big stars might be able to shrug off a million or two in fines for breach of contract, but most can’t, and it’s ludicrous that financial devastation is the cost of not wanting to work with an abuser. Multi-project contracts should probably be banned outright, and contracts in general weighted more heavily in favour of employees.
That’s just one example, but not something I’ve seen discussed in the aftermath of the Weinstein revelations. The idea that the industry itself might need massive structural and economic reform seems alien to most people covering something we should all understand as a revelation of massive abuse and corruption enabled and encouraged by the way the entertainment industry is organised as an industry.
If we’re not calling for that to be changed, I’m not sure why we’re bothering to say anything at all.
3 thoughts on “Art and the Artist”