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Brilliant Art And Horrible Artists: Can They Ever Be Separated?

Is there not the risk of dismantling so much of popular culture that we leave only cultural rubble?

17/11/2017 11:28 GMT | Updated 17/11/2017 11:30 GMT

There are many difficult questions to be asked in light of the sexual harassment and assault scandal currently engulfing popular culture. It seems to be beyond doubt that there is a problem with powerful men taking advantage of people, mostly but not exclusively women, for their own sexual gratification. Many such questions, including what should be done about the incidents that have occurred, how future allegations should be handled, and what change is required, are outside my remit and all I can realistically add is my solidarity with anyone who has been hurt.

What I am qualified to discuss, as a commentator on popular culture, is what is to be done with the art itself. I am a massive fan of House of Cards, Chewed Up, Pulp Fiction, and The Producers – all of which involve alleged abusers Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, or Harvey Weinstein. Much like revisiting the children’s television of the 1970’s, or listening to certain glam rock artists, my enjoyment of these shows has become tainted, possibly fatally, by the actions of the men behind them.

It is still, however, my knee-jerk reaction to enjoy the exploits of Frank Underwood, Bialystock and Bloom, Louis, and Butch. By this I mean it is my default position to still think that the artworks themselves are great even though some of the artists behind them are, to say the very least, tarnished.

My question is: Can we ever separate the art from the artist, and even if we can, should we?

I fully understand why we can’t and shouldn’t. As one clever and eloquent friend of mine put it to me, “I now feel that abusers are very often getting away with their behaviour, and continuing to thrive in their careers, because of this very attitude. This, to me, is at the expense of victims and so becomes a morally problematic view for me to hold.”

Even though it is my nature to be a contrarian, I find this very difficult to argue with. It does feel wrong to derive enjoyment from something created by someone who has been accused of such awful things and doing so could be seen as a failure of empathy.

Additionally, another intensely intelligent and engaging friend of mine, whose ire is an unwise to provoke as her humour is a delight to enjoy, argued that, “All art is a form of self-expression and therefore all art is intrinsically and irrevocably connected to the artist, their character, their world view, and their actions.”

Again, an entirely agreeable point. It does indeed fill one with a sense of unease to continue to enjoy their self-expression, and therefore to continue to enjoy them, in part, as a person, given that the two are inextricably linked.

So, why can’t I get the stubborn insistence that I should be able to enjoy the art of a despicable artist out of my head?

Well, it might be that most common of human failings; selfishness. I want to continue to enjoy the diner scene, Springtime for Hitler, and Frank’s fourth wall breaking, without having to think critically to the point where I can’t.

There may, however, be good arguments for continued enjoyment. After all, most of these works, with the highly disputable exception of Louis CK’s stand-up, were significantly contributed to by other creatives and they, surely, ought not to be deprived of their deserved credit by virtue of the actions of another?

Furthermore, given that so many creative types will undoubtedly have behaved in ways that we would rightly condemn; is there not the risk of dismantling so much of popular culture that we leave only cultural rubble?

Finally, there are the implications for other forms of art. For instance, I am sure that if we were to consult the record we would find, for example, designers and architects who have done similar things. Should their buildings be brought down and their products consigned to disuse because of it and if so, who does that impact most? Slippery slope arguments are often trite but they are not always unsound.

One of the fundamental skills of the polemicist is to come to a succinct and persuasive conclusion at the end of their essay. In these terms, this article, and this writer, has very little to offer. I’m genuinely not sure what the right answer is. I don’t know if we can separate these artists, who have hurt others so badly, from their art, or even if we should.

However, there do appear to be two courses of action that we can undertake as a culture which would be overwhelmingly right. We can take all steps necessary to end sexual abuse and harassment and we can ask the difficult questions; like if the art and the artist can, or should, ever be considered separately?