Reconciling art with the artist
Bad people often make good things. The recent allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual assault, as well as many others in recent weeks, only add to this trend. In situations like these, fans find themselves in the unusual predicament of reconciling the consumption of the art the person has created with the behaviors they display in their private—but often, very public—lives. Considering the frequency of these kinds of revelations, many people tend to use the rationale of “respect the art, not the artist” to reconcile their continued consumption of what the person has created. Yet is that reasoning necessarily valid, or even possible? To what degree can and should we separate art from its artist?
The fundamental impetus for this issue is that continued consumption of the art would allow the artist to continue to profit. Profit, as I use it here, describes not only a monetary gain, but a gain in credibility, personal status or influence. Continued consumption of art serves to validate the artist’s status as an important member of society and culture. In the case of a toxic artist, this would entail allowing them to remain influential and powerful, thereby potentially allowing them to continue their behavior. We may not be necessarily condoning the artist’s behavior by further consuming their art; however, the continued allowance of them to remain powerful and relevant has somewhat of the same effect. Looking at the issue from the perspective of a victim adds further concern. Imagine the horror of watching the person that committed your assault walking onstage to accept an Academy Award, or being handed yet another certified-platinum record. Instances like these leave victims feeling marginalized because if their assaulter is so worthy of praise and honor for the things they create, the damage they cause to others is overlooked or ignored.
Suppose we assume there are cases where art should be judged by the character of its artist. What degree of heinous action would be required to truly affect the perception of their art? Would there be some moral scale that exists whereby each heinous action by a person could be placed, and any act that exists past some tipping point would be a valid degradation to the acceptability of their art? This method remains inappropriate because where different actions exist, the scale would be mostly arbitrary and subjective. What acts do and do not allow for this separation could not feasibly be quantified in this way because nowhere in society does a standard moral compass exist that can be applied to all actions and people. Individual cases are unique and assessing actions based on some moral scale would not only be difficult, but impractical as well.
Fundamentally, there are no clear answers to of any of these questions. The dynamics of the moral issues in these kinds of cases do not lend themselves to a clear set standard for contextualizing art with its artist. Reconciling the multiple accounts of violence and abuse with the great music by my favorite musician, Jimi Hendrix, is something I have thought about a lot. The recent allegations against Kevin Spacey again make me wonder whether I can and should appreciate “House of Cards” the same as I did before, a decision partially remedied by Netflix’s decision to halt production and cancel the series. In both of these cases, I’m unsure of what is the morally right course of action. The point of this article is not to provide a clear answer, but to highlight the complexity of this issue—something well-worth considering when we find ourselves in this sadly all-too-familiar situation.