The Art is Not The Artist: On Holding Abusers Accountable & Enjoying Problematic Media
There are a lot of people who argue that you should always divorce the artist, as a flawed human, from their work. Indeed, it’s a tenet of our culture; no one ever argues that John Lennon’s abuse of this first wife Cynthia precludes The Beatles from being regarded as the greatest band of all time.
I’m not arguing that we need to set Guernica on fire because Picasso was a controlling, abusive womanizer who threatened to throw Francoise Gilot in the Seine and burned her face with a cigarette. I’m not saying you’re a horrible person if you occasionally nod along to Ignition – Remix. However, more critical thought is required before we defend art produced by abusive people, and in many cases, continued support of their career is unjustifiable.
This is the thought process I go through when I’m considering the creative output of a horrible individual, and the questions I ask myself about whether I can consume the work in good conscience.
Does this artist benefit, financially or otherwise, from me consuming their work?
I have an old James Brown record that was originally sold before I was born. The only person who made money off me buying it was the owner of a kitschy record store in Palm Springs; when I play it in my house, it makes no one any money at all. While I honestly wouldn’t mind money going to the many children he never acknowledged during his lifetime, if I occasionally put aside the knowledge that he was a real piece of work aside and throw on Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag while I vacuum, no one is hurt and no one benefits. And if I threw it into a fire in some grand gesture, again, no one would benefit.
Does the art have anything to do with the abuser’s crime?
People argued a lot about “separating the art from the artist” when Woody Allen’s molestation of his daughter became impossible to ignore. However, here’s the thing: almost all of Woody Allen’s work is about a thinly guised version of him. A lot of it is about some old weird creep having a sexual relationship with a younger, beautiful woman under a clear imbalance of power. How the hell am I supposed to separate the art from the artist?
I have no desire to see Woody Allen make a movie about a professor entering a relationship with his student. I have no desire to hear R. Kelly sing about sex. It’s disgusting. It’s them describing their loathesome crimes through art.
Could I be promoting/boosting/enjoying/supporting the work of a marginalized, ignored genius instead of this widely recognized talent who happens to be a piece of garbage?
Like, I could go see Woody Allen’s new movie. Or I could go see A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. I could listen to Modest Mouse, whose lead singer is accused of rape; or I could listen to In School, a feminist hardcore band who openly talks about injustice and abuse.
I mean, I’m not saying those examples have anything to do with each other. But a big part of continuing to enjoy the work of abusers depends on complacency. I’m not going to find any new bands to listen to because I can’t be bothered. I’m not going to care that this artist did horrible things because I can’t be bothered.
I paraphrase this sentiment on Twitter a lot: you guys know there are bands with no members who killed someone while driving drunk or committed rape, right? You know you can just go find bands that didn’t do those things and listen to them instead, right?
How are other survivors of abuse affected by my support of this artist?
Imagine you’re on a third date with someone who you’re really hitting it off with, and you launch into a long-winded defense of Woody Allen and separating the art from the artist. It’s just conversation, right? You guys keep dating, and now you’re a serious item. How long do you think it takes them to trust you enough to confide in you that they were molested? Do they ever trust you enough?
How do you think survivors of abuse (and believe me, you know PLENTY, even if you don’t know it) feel when you defend abusers on Facebook? Are you contributing to the culture that told them “there isn’t enough proof, that you can’t ruin your abuser’s life like this, you should forget about it and move on”? How does their opinion of you change?
Could I be spending the time I’m spending defending an abusive person/project on supporting victims of abuse, fighting against the type of abuse they perpetrated, or boosting marginalized groups instead?
I enjoy Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I also think their use of the t-word, and their subsequent non-apology, is BS. I would like to keep watching the show; however, I have absolutely zero interest in defending their use of the slur, their “right” to use it, telling activists calling for the end of the use of the slur that they’re overly sensitive, etc.
Instead, I use that precious time and energy to tell people I hear using that word in public that it’s inappropriate and hurtful and not the correct word to use. I write emails to companies producing adult entertainment that uses harmful slurs to describe their performers, asking them to start promoting their products differently and explaining why it matters so much, not only to the performers but also to the consumers. I also tell all my friends about queer media I enjoy that is empowering to transgender performers, rather than insulting.
I donate to and help promote Trans Tech, Project Fierce, and Chicago House, which are all charities local to me that help transgender people find employment and housing. I try my best to be sensitive in my own speech and own it when I make a mistake.
None of this is intended as a sort of “carbon offset” to make up for the fact I watch Drag Race; it’s just an issue I care about deeply. But you have to ask yourself, am I doing more to perpetuate and support a culture where these sort of abuses are seen as ok and forgivable, or am I working to make the world a better place?