Separating Art from the Artist in the Age of #MeToo

In the age of #MeToo, I don’t really know who or what entertainment I like anymore. I used to list Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K. as my two favorite comedians, once had a photo of Kevin Spacey as my cell phone lock-screen, spent five years contending that Jeffrey Tambor’s television show “Arrested Development” was the best series of all time, and can recite Bill Cosby’s “The Fat Albert Movie” verbatim. Thus, the pattern in which men in Hollywood are discredited as perpetrators of sexual assault and misconduct has forced me into a tremendous media reckoning. The issue of separating art from the artist has never been more pertinent.

It appears that the impulse of the general public when it learns that celebrities have acted inappropriately or criminally in their private lives is to eschew their bodies of work. As Natalie Proux said in her November 2017 New York Times article “Can You Separate Art from the Artist?” when a man in media is accused of being a predator, “his work — no matter how much people liked it before — turns radioactive.” Choosing not to consume content created by the perpetrator of the given crime is a token of our protest. Often, it is also a necessity; we are unable to watch a person’s work without considering the horrible things we know they’ve done, which is unpleasant.

However, creating a binary where every piece of entertainment is morally permissible to view until there is a direct allegation against its creator is simply a mistake. It is narrow minded and parochial to assume that all of the culture we consumed until the emergence of #MeToo was created exclusively by good people; most of us probably don’t make that assumption. Did we assume Louis CK was a paragon of moral rectitude until he became an alleged predator? No, of course not. The entire premise of his semi-autobiographical TV series, “Louie,” is that he is rude, sarcastic, flippant, and sometimes downright cruel.

Similarly, writes Richard Brody in his October, 2017 New Yorker article “Harvey Weinstein and the Illusion of the Vulgar But Passionate Old-Hollywood Studio Boss,” Harvey Weinstein’s career has been colored by “an overarching trait of his character that has long been publicly known—his extreme and systematic bullying, which expressed itself not only in his alleged harassment of and assaults on women but in his horrible–boss-type behavior toward both the men and women he worked with.”

In other words, we knew Weinstein was bad news long before women came out publicly against him. Brody adds that Weinstein was prone to “likening his own style to that of an earlier era of film producer… he sees himself in the tradition of such studio greats as {Irving} Thalberg and David O. Selznik.” We always watch old movies with the dim awareness that their production was colored by gendered power imbalances and possible abuses. Surely, we cannot and should not discard the entire classic film canon on these grounds. That would be revisionist history; it would create massive gaps in our culture.

Deciding that some works are tarnished by the discreditment of one individual who worked on them also does a disservice to the hundreds of other people who participate in the creation of every movie or TV show we watch. Every Miramax film may also have been someone (a makeup artist, a screenwriter, a scenic designer)’s magnum opus. Boycotting such projects ignores the hard work of thousands in order to shame a select few. Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None,” in addition to being the crowning project of Ansari’s problematic filmography, is credited with the best black female coming-out scene in television history in its “Thanksgiving” episode. And that has nothing to do with Ansari — it was written and starred-in by Ansari’s co-writer, Lena Waithe.

However, Ansari’s case may actually be one where it is impossible to extricate the art from the artist. This is because his entire career, from “Master of None” to his 2015 book Modern Romance, to his Netflix special, “Creepy Dudes are Everywhere,” has an autobiographical spin and a strong focus on love and dating. In most of his work, Ansari has characterized himself as the last decent, honest person in the hookup-obsessed, impersonal dating culture of the present day. Obviously, though ambiguous in their status as assault, the allegations against Ansari negate the veracity of the persona and discredit Ansari as an authority on how to court women.

For similar reasons (though absolutely not of the same scale), it is also impossible to enjoy Bill Cosby’s work. His serial rape allegations, which predate #MeToo and far surpass the offenses of most of the people condemned in the movement, are so severe that they taint anything tied to him. Much of Cosby’s work positions him as a father figure for Americans, a moral compass of sorts. It has come to light that Cosby is no such thing. He’s reprehensible, and there is absolutely no cultural rationale that could possibly dissuade me from feeling nauseous when he appears in “The Fat Albert Movie,” inviting his teenage neighbor, Doris into his home to dispense some quality advice.

To me, it seems short-sighted to stop enjoying the work of every man accused in the #MeToo movement, but sometimes we must — either because the person is so morally repugnant that we cannot even hear their name uttered, or because the allegations against them are antithetical to the image of them projected in the work that they render the work totally void of legitimacy.

In the end, this is really a personal decision. It is less about what it is “right” or “wrong” to consume, and more about what we can stomach as individual viewers.

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