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The Art & the Problematic Artist

Can one separate the art from the artists?

I can't really say that the signs were all there; queer baiting us with no intention of actually portraying Albus Dumbledore as gay, portraying established abusive characters as heroes, (see Snape) changing & creating problematic canons with 140 character tweets...This was all harmless, but once Joanne started tweeting Transphobic ideas with the HUGE platform that she has built, it had serious implications. This brings me to the question many have struggled with since the dawn of time, Can we separate the art from the artist? And in doing so should we boycott art by problematic people? Spoiler alert — it depends.

Even though J.K. Rowling prompted this post, it's not about her.

 

The more I talk to people about the separation of art/artist, I realize that some people come to this issue from a very theoretical standpoint. They talk about things like the death of the author, and I think although yes, you can still believe in the idea that the art and the artist are separate in terms of the artist’s intentions not necessarily being the entirety of the work of art itself, but the financial, social, and power structure ties between an artist and a piece of work are very much real. I believe that the decision that people make is based on a combination of three things: profit, principle, and perception.

First of all, profit; Literally will that person profit from you consuming their art?

Let's take an example; there is a transphobic writer who has been spewing hate on twitter and has a large platform to do so. If you buy their books or you buy their merch, you know that you are supporting them financially. But if we think about a writer who was a domestic abuser but died 50 years ago, if your decision is purely made because of profit, it won't matter if you consume their material because they have no way of gaining from it. Something in between those two examples might be a singer, who recently went on racist tirades across social media. You might not buy their album, but if it was purely about profit, you might say that it was okay to pirate their music.

The second thing to consider is principle, YOUR principles.

It might be within your own internal moral code as a point of principle to not consume this art regardless of the financial profits to the problematic person. If you're acting purely on principle, then you wouldn't even pirate someone's music even though you know that they won't directly financially gain from it. One reason for acting on principle rather than straight profit is although someone might not gain in the short term, they might end up gaining in the long term. Accepting the work of someone who does things that you consider to be wrong potentially sends the message to people that those things are, at least in part, acceptable.

The third consideration is perception. For many people, the main reason I think they come to that instinctual answer, is how they personally perceive it, whether that's consciously or subconsciously. Sometimes things just feel wrong. I mean that emotionally even art that you once loved, can become tainted by the thing that you know about the artist. It means that even if someone, reasons the idea of how the art and artists, are or aren’t linked, you just feel the way you feel about it. I cringe every time I watch a previously loved movie and the Miramax logo pops up, I absolutely cannot consume anything J.K. Rowling has produced without feeling hurt/ betrayed, Firefly and Buffy  seemed like such ahead-of-their-time "woke" work of art only for Joss Whedon to be exposed to be utterly problematic.

But maybe the example that you're thinking of isn't morally black and white to you, how can we sort through the things that are in a morally grey area? For me it hinges on two questions —

one: what does the artist do? And two: what is the context of their art to the people around them?

First of all, what do they do, how are they problematic? Someone has been convicted of murder, rape, molestation; I think we can all agree — horrible things to do, easy decision. But then we have to look at other scenarios, what about people who have only been accused or “alleged” and haven't been proven to be guilty? What about something that happened twenty, fifty years ago? What about attitudes that people hold that they haven't necessarily acted on? And what about the context of that behavior or attitude if someone lived 100 years ago? Should we hold them accountable for their thoughts that were probably very commonplace at a time, but that we now see as wrong?

Secondly, what is the context of their art in relation to others? It's much easier to answer these questions in relation to solo artists or people that we see as having the singular possession of a piece of work. You may not be able to divorce a transphobic author’s views from their latest novel that you want to buy and read, that money is still going to benefit a transphobic author, but what about a film with the problematic person in it? Your effort to boycott is also boycotting the livelihoods of the hundreds of people who also worked on that piece of art. Now you may say well, maybe they didn't know about what that person had done, and in the case of films that came before they started working with the problematic person, yeah, that might be the case. So do you say you're going to consume the art from before the person did the thing or before people knew that the person did the thing?

What about people who are forced to work with these problematic people? A very modern example of this would be the example of Ke$ha, do you just not support any work that Ke$ha’s done with the producer that she was forced to work with. Even more than that, and I think this is something that's become increasingly relevant especially with the news around people like Harvey Weinstein, is that your support maintains the social power of that person and their ability to work within that industry. In cases of things like sexual harassment, coercion within creative industries, it is that very power and support which allows them to do the awful thing in the first place, and two-fold the power also helps them get away with it.

Ultimately the answer to these questions is going to be personal, but I do think it's important to think about whether these personal boycotts may simply be doing something for you - the individual, to feel better about yourself, and not actually doing anything to dismantle the structures which are allowing these things to happen in the first place. If you are someone who feels strongly about boycotting a piece of artwork made by someone who's done something that you think is reprehensible, I would say maybe go one step further, and try and support people who are attempting to make those industries a better place for everyone involved.

Silence Breakers, the elbow to the right.

Vox media did an article about the Silence breakers, and they talked about the elbow to the right.

Time magazine named The Silence breakers Person of the Year for 2017. These are the women (and men) who shared their stories of assault, harassment, and hostility, and publicly named their alleged abusers in Hollywood, the media, and politics. But if you look closer, there's something else on the cover. A hint, that there are many more that don't, or can't break that silence.

When it comes to harassment, a US (I cannot imagine India's statistics) government report found that when men and women were sexually harassed at work, the least common response was to formally report it, only 30 per cent of people did, that means that for every three that reported, another seven remained silent.

 

Another study cited in that EEOC report, found that of the people who reported harassment at work, seventy five per cent faced some sort of retaliation for doing so, which explains why so few people report their harassment, fear. In fact, fear is the number one reason people don't report. Fear of retaliation for speaking out, and this is why the silence breakers are a big deal.

Person of the Year Time Silence Breakers

 

2017 certainly felt like a year in which many, many more people are speaking up in spite of that fear, but there's just so much more we don't know, even the statistics, by their own admission, over represent the experiences of straight white women, and probably don't accurately reflect the experiences of women of color, men, lesbians, gays or transgender people.

 

Which is to say that, the stories of the few Silence breakers that have come forward, are really just the tip of the elbow for all the people remaining silent.