The Art is Not The Artist: On Holding Abusers Accountable & Enjoying Problematic Media

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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 saying 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 bad 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 an abusive 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 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 in the trash 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, 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?

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10 responses to “The Art is Not The Artist: On Holding Abusers Accountable & Enjoying Problematic Media

  1. I appreciate and respect your position/perspective here, but it seems like you are equating allegations with guilt, which is problematic to me. That article about Drunkdriver is about an allegation of rape, which becomes “committed rape” in your post. The same can be said for the Modest Mouse case, or with a driver being charged with a crime that has yet to go to trial. It seems like people are being labeled “pieces of garbage” without any consideration of actual facts.

    I agree with your central argument–that we can choose to support positive change in these arenas. However, I think once we begin abandoning people, or their art, based on accusations, it can become much more destructive in other ways.

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  2. Innocence until proven guilty applies to the court of law; it does not apply to what musicians I choose to listen to. My personal policy is to always believe the victims of rape. Given the extremely low rates of false accusations, and the prevalence of dropped charges due to institutional bias against rape victims, I am comfortable accepting allegations against an artist as reason enough to withdraw support of their work.

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  5. So while I support the concept of being more critical of artists’ behavior and of their work, I think the whole idea that we can simply opt out of the system is naive and displays a profound ignorance of how capitalism actually works.

    Say I want to support Ke$ha for example. She’s a rape and abuse survivor who was brave enough to speak out about her abuse. Her producer was her abuser. I actually cannot support Ke$ha without also supporting her abuser, because both the artist and the producer own a portion of the copyright for any given piece of music. Royalties automatically get distributed to both of them every time a consumer purchases or streams their media.

    If the writer of this article had bothered to research how the music/tv/film industry actually functions, they’d know most professionally produced media involves an entire team of copyright holders, and the people who benefit the most monetarily are often simultaneously the most morally dubious and the most difficult to google, and therefore that it’s actually very difficult to know exactly which potential abusers are benefitting from what media consumption.

    But I guess the writer of this article was too busy accusing fellow consumers of being too lazy to do their research.

    Furthermore, it’s very emotionally taxing, and often prohibitively time consuming ~for abuse survivors in particular~ to devote energy to finding out if every single person involved in every single tv show they watch or music video they stream has or hasn’t been accused of rape and/or abuse and/or spouted racist/homophobic/abelist slurs. I try to stay informed but I can only be so plugged in to the number of horrible things happening in the world before it starts negatively affecting my emotional wellbeing.

    But more importantly, this article makes it sound like boycotting is the be-all, end-all of social justice activism, when it’s actually one of the *lease effective* forms of activism.

    .

    TL&DR, this article essentially blames individual consumers for the success of problematic media producers using the exact same bullshit argument “Food, Inc.” used to blame consumers for the success of corrupt food corporations — claiming that moral standing of individuals, and the wellbeing of society as a whole, can be determined by how individuals spend their pocket change.

    That’s ass backwards. Money is not morality. There are so many far more effective ways of improving the world around us. Positive change comes from engagement and interaction, not selective consumption.

    We improve the world we live in by speaking out, not by opting out.

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  6. I bought Ender’s game and others books by OSC before I knew what a piece of shit he is, and I still enjoy the books cause those beliefs aren’t in his books.

    However, I threw my cds in the trash when I heard what Alex Day had done. I’d supported him and bought actual cds cause there were no digital versions and when he had digital version I bought those too.

    I can’t listen to his music anymore. I did listen to it a lot and sometimes it’s still stuck in my head, and sometimes I wish I could enjoy it again, but I keep thinking about all the things he did and how half his songs are about pursuing women so I can’t possibly do it.

    I also haven’t listened to chameleon circuit in forever even though those songs are not related. maybe someday.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is something I struggle with ALL THE TIME. At what point is my listening or consuming complicit in a way? And it was SO HARD to separate those with, in my own experience, Woody Allen. Here’s where I fall: Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of my absolute favorite movies, followed by Hannah and Her Sisters. I love those films, I have a deep relationship to them – but I loved them before I knew about Allen’s offenses – or before I really knew much other than he and his current wife’s relationship was a bit icky. So, those movies are firmly cemented for me as ones that I have – but now that I know and have read all of what’s out there about his “alleged” abuse, I won’t consume another piece of art he puts out there. Crimes and Misdemeanors and HAHS will always be films that I love and can watch 1000 times but I’m DONE with his “new” art because if I watch those films it is me contributing to the numbers for another deal with amazon, or another studio backed film…So, that’s where I fall. I hope that helps, it may not be that way for everyone, but it’s helped me come to terms with the fact that I DO like a problematic person’s work.

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  8. Genuinely curious: What about seeing the new XMen movie, given Fassbender? I’ve struggled with this myself. He’s getting paid whatever, but the money does go back to the studio and increases the likelihood of new movies getting made.
    (I erred on the side of not seeing the movie/borrowing a friend’s dvd)

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