For me, the art vs. artist debate began with Chris Brown. While I was never an avid listener before, his arrest for domestic abuse made it clear to me that listening to his music would be an acceptance, or at least a toleration, of his behaviour. I would feel complicit. But is that too binary an approach? Should an artist’s behaviour forever taint the perception of their art?
Much of what determines our forgiveness of celebrities is our prior feelings towards their work. If you’re a fan of The Smiths, you’re more likely to excuse the behaviour of Morrissey. If you’re a diehard Kanye stan, you may be more understanding of his ‘slavery was a choice’ remark.
Of course, transgressions of this kind exist on a spectrum. While the rolling call of celebrities to ‘cancel’ can obscure this fact, it can be highly damaging to place all problematic celebs on the same level. Jason Bateman’s defense of Arrested Development co-star Jeffrey Tambor’s sexual harassment allegations, while problematic, shouldn’t result in the same levels of ‘cancelling’. Black listing everyone who’s made a mistake reduces in the eyes of the public the severity of the allegations against people like Tambor, making the date of forgiveness that much closer.
The MeToo and Time’s Up movement have failed to lay out a set of standards on which sexual misconduct is to be judged and punished. As more allegations come to the surface, it is increasingly unclear which are slam-dunk, career-ending accusations, such as in the instances of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.
CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves is still on the job, despite an exposé detailing multiple instances of sexual harassment in the workplace. Chris Hardwick returned to his AMC show Talking Dead despite allegations from his ex-girlfriend of sexual and emotional abuse. Louis CK returned to stand-up with a standing ovation.
The absence of clear standards is worrying as there is the potential of slowing progress if there is no guideline in how best to act and respond in the instances of such allegations, from the point of view of the employers and of the public.
And should I feel complicit in enjoying a ‘bad’ person’s piece of art? This is certainly not a new phenomenon. Picasso was a misogynist. The list of historic anti-Semites is long, Edith Wharton, Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf. Yet, I seem to have no problem enjoying their art. It is only their modern counterparts that seem to be raising such issue.
The humanity of modern celebrities is often used as a defense. They just people, they are going to make mistakes and should not be held up as pinnacles of humanity and virtue. While that is of course the case, I don’t accept that excuse. These people have millions of fans and followers that hang off their every word. That also doesn’t really matter. Everyone should be held to the same level of decency, we cannot be making excuses for those in the public eye just because we feel sorry for them.
At the end of the day, it is an individual decision on whether to choose to put the art over the artist, to blast the music loud enough to drown out the misdeeds of the creator. For me, I will never choose to watch a Mel Gibson movie. It is a tricky debate and one made even trickier by the lack of clear guidance that is so needed in this time of uncertainty and ever-changing perceptions.