Preface: Throughout the past few months, as we’ve heard harrowing tale after harrowing tale of abuse, harassment, racism, sexism, and rape come to light, in the back of my mind I’ve wondered about the divide between the art and the artist. Do “we” the viewer or the critic have a responsibility to the victims, or is there a middle ground?
Throughout this piece I use the term, “we.” Here, “we” is not meant to signify every voice on this issue or every person’s thought. Rather it is to represent widespread trends and retrospectives.
Your favorite actor just committed a heinous act, and now you question whether you can “appreciate” their past films. Previously, these scenarios seemed to rarely occur. Whereas in the present, they appear to be transpiring everyday. In this climate we are confronted with a familiar question: How do we separate the art from the artist?
I believe this answer can be separated in three distinct categories: hindsight, severity, and quality.
Objectively, we’re probably best at judging in terms of “hindsight.” We “accept” a racist director from the 1920’s, because we understand that a great majority of the country was racist. D.W. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation, is still hailed as a genius. We know his views to be despicable, but we’re capable of compartmentalizing.
These exceptions are given to other artists as well. John Wayne is an American treasure. But he also did an interview with Playboy where he said, “We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks.” Not to mention, “I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people were slaves. Now, I’m not condoning slavery. It’s just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can’t play football with the rest of us?” Yeeaaaaa, about that. John Wayne issued those quotes in 1971. That’s three years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Those quotes have not affected his legacy. Even in the minds of some who are reading this now, there’s some rationalization occurring. “Those quotes aren’t too bad…think of the time, when he was raised,” some may be thinking. That’s what we do with hindsight, we compartmentalize to separate the art from the artist and worship the artist.
Severity, also comes into play.
If someone says something controversial, we’re more ready to expunge it. We think, “I’ve said a few things that I’d like to take back.” John Wayne claims white supremacy, so it’s “excusable.” It’s “forgettable.” One can look no further than Mel Gibson. “You look like a fucking pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault,” an enraged Gibson said to his girlfriend, Grigorieva, in 2010. Last year, Gibson was nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, with his film, Hacksaw Ridge, receiving a Best Picture nomination.
Once more, what may be equally troubling is the act of not saying anything at all. Judd Apatow’s Twitter is filled with supportive posts for women, yet he has said nothing of his good friend James Franco (and has not commented on what he meant when he said Katherine Heigl was “difficult” to work with). The same could be said of many comedians who oh so slowly came to decry Louis C.K. Though their lack of condemnation may not compare to C.K.’s acts, they’ll only be judged in whispers and the 40-Year-Old Virgin will still be on repeat.
Nevertheless, words are pretty easy for us to look past, but what about actions? With the rise of #MeToo, and Oprah Winfrey’s “Time’s Up” speech at the Golden Globes, sexual harassment is rightly being treated with the severity it “lacked” before. Last year, Casey Affleck won Best Actor for Manchester By the Sea, though he settled two harassment cases in 2010. This year he’s not, as is custom, presenting the award to the Best Actress. James Franco’s past harassment accusations were well known prior to the Golden Globes, where he took Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical. However, even as both actors have been shunned by the Academy Awards this year, they still have upcoming film projects. Film projects that will be making studios more money and acclaim than bad press.
That leaves us with the ultimate level of severity, rape.
Harvey Weinstein’s systematic predatory behavior is the “in your face and no way to justify it” act. Weinstein’s victims ranged from day players to A-listers, including Uma Thurman, Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Lupita Nyong’o, and Rose McGowan. Weinstein is easier to toss out, not only because of disgusting acts, but for lack of a better term, “he fits the part.” If you’re thinking of a sexual predator, your mind would probably jump to someone who looked like Weinstein. In fact, Weinstein was mostly a “shadow” man, barring a shout out in an Academy Award acceptance speech, was little known to the rest of the country. It’s far easier to separate him from the art.
The same might not be said of Kevin Spacey, a two-time Academy Award winner, he starred in classics and fan favorites, such as American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Glenngary Glen Ross, and recently, Baby Driver. The original concept for this piece came from hearing about Spacey. I questioned how I should view his work.
And Spacey wasn’t like Weinstein, crawling in the shadows of my favorite films, he was the face of them. Baby Driver didn’t appear on my Top 15 Films list for 2017, though it was one of my top 15 films. Do I discard his entire filmography? The negotiation here might be accepting and praising the films, but refusing to see any future projects, in the unlikely event he has future projects. But even that ground is uneven. What about the scene in American Beauty where his character almost has sex with his daughter’s friend, a girl who’s underage? Spacey was/is a pedophile. How do we/I reconcile that?
How do I reconcile Bill Cosby? Spacey was always a creep in his films (not that it makes the impact of his acts any less severe). Nevertheless, Cosby was Mr. Huxtable. He was clean, and a “model citizen.” In the black community, Cosby’s fall is reflective on an entire generation. Very nearly to my dad’s dying day, Bill Cosby was his hero. My dad grew up in Cosby’s hey day, when Cosby was the first Black Actor to win an Emmy. I grew up watching Bill Cosby’s stand-ups as the background of my childhood. And in my mind, though my dad recanted his fandom toward the end of his life, he never fully reconciled it. This is actually a conduit Dave Chappelle tapped into:
“I’ve never met Bill Cosby, so I’m not defending him. Let’s just remember that he has a valuable legacy that I can’t just throw away. I remember that he’s the first black man to ever win an Emmy in television. I also remember that he’s the first guy to make a cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionately. I remember that he had a television show that got numbers equivalent to the Super Bowl every Thursday night. And I remember that he partnered up with a clinical psychologist to make sure that there was not one negative image of African Americans on his show. I’m telling you, that’s no small thing. I’ve had a television show. I wouldn’t have done that shit.”
Chappelle’s comments are nuanced, far more parsed than his disgusting jokes about transsexuals. But they do analyze the weight of throwing out the art, along with the artist. And while Weinstein and Spacey have been effectively exiled, Cosby recently returned to the [small] stage.
Cosby’s return to the stage is a reminder that many are willing to compartmentalize or believe in greater conspiracies. A 2017 poll found that 57% of Americans strongly believe that a zero-tolerance policy was needed for sexual assault. 9% somewhat disagreed, while 2% strong disagreed. However, that still left 30% who somewhat agreed. The “somewhat agreed” contingency is interesting. How many said “somewhat agreed” for fear of judgment? The “somewhat agreed” contingency might be the most likely to compartmentalize, and speaks to our own fears of what “zero tolerance” means.
So, when we believe that Cosby or Spacey or Weinstein’s career is over, we may have to wait-and-see (if even for the “30% chance”). And if we have to wait-and-see to find out their ultimate fates, then what does that say about the art they produced?
Which brings me to the final criteria: quality.
Is some art so spectacular that no matter the actions of the artist, the art is not tainted? Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall is a classic. In fact, it’s informed most comedians’ views of the world. The same could be said of Roman Polanski’s immense work, a man who was convicted of rape, and was later given a standing ovation at the Academy Awards by luminaries, such as Meryl Streep and Martin Scorsese, and was later defended by Quentin Tarantino and Mia Farrow. And to a “lesser” degree, Elia Kazan, director of On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and East of Eden, and snitch against his follow artists to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
In fact, look no further than the aforementioned, Birth of a Nation. It could quite literally be considered the birth of modern cinema. So great its racism, yet so inspirational in its genius that it’s hailed as a masterpiece through gritted teeth. Voted #44 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (1997). There’s not a filmmaker that doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude, and not a lynched black person who doesn’t curse the day it was made.
Ultimately, the answer may be nuance and acknowledgement. We can say that Bill Cosby is a disgusting monster, whose artistic achievements have also inspired an entire community. We can say that I’ll never stop watching my favorite films, while acknowledging the deeply flawed individuals behind them. We can view Roman Polanski as a gifted auteur, and still have child rapist as one of the first lines in his biography. Academy Awards can still be given to great and questionable artists, depending on the severity of their flaws and their willingness to confront and change from past discretion.
We’ll hear a lot about second chances very soon. However, when we think of those second chances we should also question who’s giving those second chances to whom? It’s one thing if Aziz Ansari learns from his mistakes, prohibits others from making the same mistakes, and dedicates these lessons to not just his life, but other’s lives as well. Those acts may allow the victimized to forgive. But if Ansari goes away for a bit and then comes back with a “sorry” and that’s it, then we’ve missed the point. In fact, we’ve missed a point that’s been misplaced over-and-over again.
It’s fine if you watch American Beauty. Second chances, reappraisals, compartmentalization can and sometimes should happen, however, those decisions should also be done with the victim’s voice in mind. And to that end, our biographies, memorializations, and retrospectives of the art and artists have to become more nuanced, more critical, with greater acknowledgment of turmoil, without tumbling into to the depths of expunging great works. If those pursuits are capable of occurring at once, and they should be, then supporting your favorite artist or piece of art should not come at the expense of the affected victims.
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