Should We Separate the Art From the Artist?

Spilled popcorn and gummy bears

It’s amazing to see survivors finally being able to come forward and name their abusers. It’s even more incredible to see fellow survivors being believed and action being taken against their assailants. However, each new #MeToo story that emerges where the accused is a prominent actor, musician or writer brings with it an added personal conflict for hundreds of fans, wondering if they can continue to consume the art they had once enjoyed in good conscience.

The inner struggle that comes with finding out that your fave is a terrible person is ultimately insignificant and unimportant compared with finding justice for the people they have wronged. Yet still people continue to debate if you can separate the art from the artist.

Knowing that somebody has done something illegal or immoral, or even just holds views that you personally find reprehensible, can often irreversibly damage your ability to enjoy the things that they have created. Often this reaction is instinctive; it’s not something that has been reasoned, people aren’t considering if they can or should still enjoy the work, they just have had a visceral and unavoidable reaction.

The tendency to intellectually posture that the art is separate from the artist is a position usually assumed by those who are less personally affected by the issues at hand. It’s easy to approach things from a theoretical standpoint when you don’t have an emotional reaction.

It’s understandable to not want to financially support people who do odious things. After all, why should your hard earned cash line the pockets of an abuser? However, this isn’t always simple and straightforward.

Activist Rowan Ellis explained the complicated nuances this situation: “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 be able to divorce that homophobic author’s views from the latest novel that you want to go out and buy and read, but that money is still going to benefit a homophobic author. But what about a film with a 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. […] And what about people who are forced to work with these problematic people? A very modern example of this would be the example of Kesha. Do you just not support any work that Kesha has done with a producer she was forced to work with?”

Poet Savannah Brown remarked: “I think it’s it’s easy to say that you know you don’t want to financially support someone who’s a bad person, but I think it’s it gets a little more complicated when it comes down to it. Like can you reconcile this within yourself that this person thinks this way but you still really enjoy what they do. […] The dynamic sort of changes after they die so […] even if we say that you’re not financially supporting them, regardless it’s sort of different in a way to actively and openly support someone who’s still alive and can reap the the rewards of your support.”

It’s important to consider that even if it’s possible to consume somebody’s work without financially supporting them, the work that people create is informed by their own experiences and prejudices. For example, it’s impossible to separate the relationship between an adult and a teen portrayed in Woody Allen’s newest film from his real life transgressions. These things are one and the same — the only difference is one of them will be coming soon to a cinema near you.

Savannah Brown explained how it’s impossible to separate somebody from their work in the context of a deeply personal medium like YouTube, where ultimately somebody is their work. “With something like YouTube it’s a strictly personal thing […] especially if you’re like a vlog or something and you make videos talking about your everyday life and you know sharing your experiences I just because that that is you […]  that person is you know claiming to be themselves and just sort of going about their lives and trying to share that with people but also they’re you know sexually abusive or manipulative or a rapist  I find it really challenging to even be able to consider separating that sort of thing from the actual person.”

Abusive people don’t deserve a platform to spew their hateful vitriol, but ultimately how or if you engage with their work is a personal choice. A one person boycott won’t rob them of their power or influence, but being openly supportive of their work can easily create a toxic environment for survivors and other people they have wronged.

Personal boycotts often have little impact beyond making an individual feel better about themselves. They do almost nothing to address the systemic problems that allow bad people to continue to prosper. The industries that these people who abuse their power work within have to stop casting them in movies, publishing their books and playing their songs on the radio. The onus should be in them to stop giving abusers a platform not on consumers to choose not to engage with their work.

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