Separating the Art from the Artist
No one is perfect. Not your parents, your siblings, your teachers, preachers, or idols. Everyone is flawed, although some more than others. Over the past few years, with the advent of the #MeToo movement and other revelations, many people have fallen out of favor with the public. There’s Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Louie CK, and many, many more. These were people who were celebrated, idolized, considered some of the best in their industry. Now that they’ve fallen from grace, what do we do with their past artistic output?
Artists (actors, writers, musicians, etc) are just people at their core. They have a lot of the same fears, weaknesses, phobias, and fetishes. And no, it’s not a new phenomenon. Scandals have always been a part of art. Many artists, both men and women, cheated on their spouses, abused drugs and alcohol, or committed crimes. One of the most recent controversies concerns celebrated French writer, Gabriel Matzneff, who has been accused of child abuse. Then there’s Jimmy Savile, the well-loved British television personality who has been accused of the same thing. We also have Sean Penn, Chris Brown, and Terrence Howard, who have been accused several times of domestic abuse. Marilyn Monroe had an affair with a sitting president. Pee Wee Herman was caught masturbating in a theater. Mel Gibson went on a few weird bigoted rants. Rosanne Barr…well, I don’t have enough space here. The list goes on and on.
With all this in mind, I began wondering how we reconcile appreciation for the art these people have produced, the entertainment they’ve been a part of? Can we still watch Spacey’s movies? Can we still watch reruns of The Cosby Show? Of Rosanne?
I still can and do. The thing is, I force myself to separate the artist from the art. I can still watch The Usual Suspects and enjoy Spacey’s performance. I can still listen to Rock n’ Roll Part 2 by Gary Glitter and enjoy the music. I can still read stories written by Marion Zimmer Bradley and be swept away by her prose.
To me, refusing to watch or read or listen to something because the artist – or one of the artists – did something wrong doesn’t make sense. The way I see it, if I refuse to watch The Usual Suspects because of the accusations against Spacey, I’m not punishing him in any way. Plus, there are several other fantastic actors in that movie, great direction, a great script. Just because one player turned out to be an alleged sexual predator shouldn’t put the film on a blacklist.
I know, this can be difficult. Watching old episodes of The Cosby Show feels weird, but I have to remind myself that I’m not enjoying Bill Cosby, I’m enjoying the character he’s playing. But still, the truth is in the back of my mind…I can’t stop that.
A part of me also thinks about the other people involved in the works. Look at the show, Rosanne, as an example. On it’s initial run it was a ratings juggernaut. Did incredibly well for pretty much the entire run. Then, years later, they decided to revive it with the same cast. Unfortunately, Barr went on a few Twitter rants and doubled-down on some racist and bigoted statements. This, in turn, jeopardized the revival of the show. Fast forward and she’s booted from the show, which is then renamed and has continued without her. A similar thing happened with Spacey and his Netflix show, House of Cards. Should the cast and crew of both shows have to worry about cancellation because the star screwed up? When the accusations against Spacey came out there were calls for Netflix to cancel the show. I didn’t understand that. There were a lot of great actors and actresses on that show, not to mention a crew who made the show happen, the writers, producers, hell, even the catering company. If the show had been cancelled outright, all of these people would have been without a job.
I feel that one of the reasons why the public can develop such a backlash against artists who do wrong is because we often idolize them too much. We see someone like Cosby and hear the words of wisdom he shared, his clean comedy act, the brilliant sitcom, and we never consider that he’s just a human being. He’s not perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending anyone here. I’m simply stating that we generally look up to these people, are inspired by them, and develop an image of them in our minds that isn’t based in reality. No one is perfect. Not you. Not me. I’ve made my fair share of stupid decisions, inadvertently hurt people, said the wrong thing. My misdemeanors are nothing compared so some of the transgressions noted above, but I’m also not idolized by millions. At least, I don’t think I am.
This is a tricky subject and I know not everyone will agree with me. However, I feel we have to make an effort to separate the people from the things they create. If not, then consider what I wrote above about all our heroes being flawed. If we really knew all the sordid details of everyone we admire, we’d probably end up not admiring anyone. Instead, we should focus on positive traits, the beauty they may have brought into the world, albeit with dirty hands.
It’s not easy, but I think that in the end, we’re only punishing ourselves if we dismiss art by damaged artists.