When an artist does something heinous (or, at least, is accused of something heinous), can we separate the artist from their art? This conundrum has become more salient in the Me Too era, where many people in film, TV, music, comedy, influencer, and other forms of entertainment and content creation are called out for their bad behavior. There doesn’t seem to be any readily available answers, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t important questions to ask.
This post was inspired by this video by Finn McKenty:
In the video, he breaks it down into categories: the bad behavior of content creators that are known and those that are not proven but credible. The former would be, for instance, people who admitted to their bad behavior, or those who have been convicted in court. Think Louis C.K. or Harvey Weinstein. The latter would be people who have accusations against them, though they deny the accusations and have not yet been convicted. Think (at the time of my writing this) Marilyn Manson, Joss Whedon, or James Charles.
As Finn points out, the first case – where it’s known that the bad behavior has occurred – is simpler, though not easy, than the second case. It’s simple in that there is no ambiguity, but it’s not easy because, for instance, Harvey Weinstein was involved in a ton of movies, though not necessarily in a creative role. How much can we even say that he is an ‘artist’ in this case, much less how we ought to separate him from the content. Or, with Louis C.K., who admitted to his bad behavior. Of course, there is also the issue of what the crime actually is: I think it would be difficult to find someone who thinks Louis C.K.’s bad behavior was just as bad as Weinstein’s.
These conundrums are talked about in the video. However, I wanted to look at the issue from a couple slightly different angles. The first is the issue of group efforts in content creation, and the second is the issue of artist growth vs death.
In much of the content we consume, there isn’t just a single artist at work. To me, Joss Whedon is a salient example. In the past few years, his fall from grace has been rapid. From allegations of serial adultery to the toxic work environment he fosters on set (though, to my knowledge, as of writing this, still no allegations of sexual assault, just allegations that he’s a shitty boss). I may be biased on this, because I’m a fan of Whedon’s work (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and even Dollhouse). Joss Whedon, though, was not the only one working on those shows. If we were to cast those shows into the dustbin if history because of Whedon’s bad behavior, would that not also be punishing everyone else who worked on these projects? Whedon’s shows have been lauded for being progressive and feminist. But it wasn’t just Whedon. His shows had plenty of women both behind and in front of the camera. As pieces of art, do they not still speak the same truth, even if Whedon himself didn’t necessarily live by the truth spoken in his work? Is there not still something that consumers of the content can still gain and learn from the content? Is Buffy, for instance, not still laudable for its (good, though not without controversy) portrayal of women and gays at an important cultural moment in history? And were these things not attributable to everyone else working on these shows as much as to Whedon himself?
The second issue is perhaps even more of a philosophical one with implications even outside of art and artists: can, and should, people be held to account for bad behavior from the past? Anything from so-called ‘problematic’ Tweets mad by people like James Gunn or Keven Hart made a decade ago and up to behavior that would be considered sexual assault by rock bands back in the 1980s. The first philosophical issue here is whether people in the past should be held to the same standards that we would hold people today; the second philosophical issue is whether people can change and evolve and if doing so should allow past bad behavior to be forgiven.
It’s easy for us in our present time to judge people of the past based on our current moral standards. The way people a hundred years ago thought about issues of sex/gender and race seem unbelievable to most of us now days. Bring even the most progressive person from the early 20th century forward in time to now and they would likely seem like a screaming bigot by our standards. But one does not even have to go that far back. I’m an older millennial, I went to school in the late nineties, and I recall rampant homophobia. The late nineties was perhaps the pinnacle of using the word “gay” as a pejorative for anything bad or undesirable. Calling someone a “faggot” was commonplace for just about everyone in high school, to the point that the slur lost most of its impact as an insult (at least when straight people used it against other straight people to try to belittle them). I even remember that a few people in my high school started a gay-straight alliance club only to have a bunch of people show up just to berate the club members. I never went that far, but I am not exempt from using words like “gay” and “faggot” in derogatory ways. There is a reason why the rapper Eminem, on his albums from that time, used these slurs with abandon and when accused of bigotry said things like “I’m just talking the way everyone does with each other” – because it’s true. That was how people in many parts of the country talked back in the late nineties.
I’m not arguing that our behavior back then was good. I think most people from my generation have grown and evolved and can understand that talking that way was wrong. But, it’s probably lucky for many of us early millennials that there wasn’t the ubiquity of cameras back then, because if video of casual conversation from the time surfaced for some 36-year-old Youtuber or musician, they’d likely face a huge backlash and maybe even be canceled for the way they talked two decades ago.
But that brings us to the second conundrum: ought a person be judged for things they did long ago? Especially if that person has grown and evolved as a person? This goes beyond just stupid kids using hurtful slurs, too. What about murderers and rapists? If someone committed a murder or rape 20 years, 30 years, or 40 years ago, and have since paid the penalty and learned the error of their ways, ought that person be forgiven? Issues about the rights of convicts often come up, and lately with voting rights. And its easy to think of convicts in the abstract and agree that they deserve rights. But one must also remember that they are, in fact, people who have been convicted of crimes. That includes murderers and rapists, not just the poor bastards in prison for possession of marijuana. Is there any redemption for a murderer or rapist? I would agree that redemption would, at the very least, be contingent on whether the person was repentant for their crimes and, having grown as a human being, would not commit the heinous act again. But how would one judge that a person was truly repentant and evolved?
To bring this back to the issue of art and artists, I think Louis C.K. is illustrative of this. While his behavior may not reach the level of actual rape, his behavior was still terrible. His admission to this at least appears genuine. Some people already seem to have forgiven him while others have not. Is there a right answer here? Should people go see Louis C.K.? And what about his old work, from when he was still in the midst of his bad behavior? Should we say that his newer work (if we accept that he is repentant and has grown) is fine to enjoy, but his work from when he was still “sinful” should be eschewed? Should past Louis C.K. be treated as if he were a different person from the present more evolved Louis C.K.? Or should he be treated as if he were exactly the same person and no amount of repentance and growth can overcome what he’s done? Or, perhaps, is it simply just impossible for a person to grow out of whatever they’ve ever been in their past, and all of us should be held to account for the things we did 10 or 20 years ago just as strongly as what we did yesterday?
And what happens if some behavior that is common now and considered benign is, in 20 years, determined to be bad? Should we be judged by the future for things we do not consider to be bad now?