On bad people and good art

A few days back a question was put to me in the comments that I decided needed a full blog post to answer. The question was this:

“Yo Mouse. There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while regarding the whole #MeToo movement: should movies and TV shows with actors/directors/whatever who are guilty of sexual misconduct be (to borrow a quote from your Song of the South review) “sealed away, never to be seen by human eyes again”, or could they still be watched but without forgetting the actions of the people behind them?”

Before I answer I would like to introduce you to Sharpson’s law: Dogma is inherently immoral.

What I mean is, if you take any moral principal, no matter how universally agreed, and make it absolute, sooner or later it’s going to do harm.

Killing is wrong. Absolutely. No question. But is killing always wrong?

Give me a few minutes and I could probably come up with dozens if not hundreds of instances where killing would be morally justifiable. This is the problem with dogma. It creates moral laziness. It turns ascertaining right and wrong into a box ticking exercise, and if you fall into that mode of thinking sooner or later you’re going to tick the wrong box. All this is my extremely pretentious way of saying, there’s no simple “yes” or “no” answer to this one.

As a writer, I think that the notion that only good people can create good art, and therefore if someone is revealed to be a bad person their art is worthless is absurd on its face. It’s also an extremely Victorian attitude. As Oscar Wilde said “Books are neither moral or immoral, they are well written or badly written. That is all.”

But that does not mean that we should never consider morality when it comes to art. We should consider morality in everything we do, and especially in a capitalist economy where how you spend your money is, more and more, seen as a kind of imprimatur. The Weinsteins of this world operated and continue to operate because we loved the art they created too much to care about the sins they committed.

But this opens up another question:

Harvey Weinstein created Pulp Fiction. But so did literally hundreds of actors, cameramen, techies, publicists, the writer, the director and on and on and on. Should all their work be consigned to oblivion because one of their number was a scumbag? That hardly seems fair.

On the other hand, refusing to let these considerations change your viewing habits at all looks a lot like “I just don’t care”, and “I just don’t care” is not good enough anymore.

So, instead of giving a hard and fast answer as to whether or not to boycott art by made by awful people, I’ll just offer some suggestions.

1)      If the offender in question is dead, it’s irrelevant. Yes, Wagner was a terrible Anti-Semite. But he’s been dust for decades and you refusing to listen to Ride of the Valkyries accomplishes nothing but inflating your own sense of moral superiority. Speaking of.

2)      If you’ve decided to boycott a particular artist, all well and good, but don’t do it just for bragging rights because it’s not about you. And especially…

3)      Don’t brag about boycotting art you were never going to patronise anyway. I’ll never watch The Apprentice or listen to Chris Brown, but even if Trump and Chris Brown were two of the nicest guys who ever lived you couldn’t make me with a gun to my head.

4)      Don’t insult or belittle someone who continues to appreciate the work of an offender. Everyone has a right to enjoy whatever art they wish. Flip side:

5)      Don’t insult or belittle someone who refuses to patronise the work of an offender. Everyone has a line in the sand and often it’s less a logical well thought out thing than an instinctive gut reaction. John Lasseter’s “Inappropriate Hugging” isn’t enough to get me to swear off Pixar, but I’m not going to watch that Gravity Falls episode with Louis C. K again. Does that make sense? Honestly, no. But that’s where my line is.

6)      Just…just…just be nice. Jesus.

7)      It is perfectly acceptable, and indeed laudable, to pirate the work of offenders so that they don’t see a red cent.

8)      Feel free to separate the artist from the art. But “separate” is not the same as “forget”.

9)      Last one. If you know that a piece of art was actually created by harming an innocent, then it’s no longer art, it’s snuff and should not be watched ( or at least not in unedited form). I’m specifically thinking of Last Tango in Paris but there’s almost certainly others.

Anyway, that’s my answer. I look forward to the reasoned and polite debate in the comments.

19 comments

  1. Yeah, I agree. Especially movies are group projects and I am pretty sure that in the production of most of them there was at least some scumbag, weather I know it or I don’t.

    I think I draw the line whenever I feel the the objectionable point of view of a director or producer is bleeding into the movie itself. I don’t think that any Zack Snyder movie is watchable for exactly that reason. I have my trouble with Tarantino movies, but then, I always had my trouble with them, independent from the question if he permanently hurt his main actress or not. They are simply too gory in a “look, how cool” way that I would feel comfortable with them.

    And even then there is a difference between historically important movies by objectionable people and movies which are forgettable. Because it is hard to overlook a movie which was influential, no matter how racist it is in hindsight. It is just a puzzle piece you need to understand film history and the era itself.

    In short, its complicated.

  2. Lasseter’s behaviour was worse than just hugging. Check out this article by a former Pixar employee: https://variety.com/2018/film/news/pixar-boys-club-john-lasseter-cassandra-smolcic-1202858982/ it’s honestly heartbreaking. Short of just banning women completely, I’m not sure what else he could have done to make their time at Pixar miserable.

    I won’t stop watching Pixar but I’m not gonna lie, this stuff has soured me towards their brand a lot. Don’t think settling down to watch “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo” will ever be as happy experiences as they used to.

  3. Hooo boy.

    This is perhaps the thorniest moral question of our times, because it *looks* like one question at first glance and it’s really not. Every second you keep looking at it, it sprouts another tendril with a dozen more thorns. Lemme see if I can break down all the points these discussions tend to cover…

    (Warning: this is not going to be nearly as coherent as I’d like it to be. It’d probably take a whole fucking book to cover every point to its fullest.)

    1.) Was/is [insert controversial artist here] a bad person?

    The most common element in these types of debates, though by no means the most easily-answered. In fact, I’m pretty sure each side has its ammunition well-rehearsed by now: “It was a different time!” “Oh yeah? Then how’d [X contemporary] realize it was bad and devote their whole life against it?” and so on, and so forth.

    Things get especially heated when the artist in question is dead – and I’m gonna have to disagree with you a bit here, because in many ways the dead have *more* power than the living. Would anyone deny the stranglehold Shakespeare continues to exercise on Theatre, or Twain on Literature?

    (“Twain called Jim a ——, why can’t I?!” “Well, Twain was a racist sonuvabitch. Next?” It might not be the most intellectually honest rebuttal, but it IS the fastest, and in today’s culture speed is almost the only currency that matters…)

    2.) Assuming (1), does the badness directly inform their art-making methods?

    This one lends itself more easily to clear-cut yes-or-no responses, but only in comparison. I’ve heard it said by reputed scholars that H.P. Lovecraft would never have been able to write such genre-defining horror had he not been the kind of seething racist who angsted over having (gasp!) Welsh ancestry and thought Hitler was going too easy on the Jews. I’ve heard it said by equally-reputed scholars that those other scholars are full of shit, and that indeed many of Lovecraft’s contemporaries managed the same breed of horror without his awful bigotry.

    3.) Assuming (2), can those methods be perpetuated in modern times *without* bringing the badness along?

    Continuing my previous example – Neil Gaiman’s still the Internet’s number-one golden boy even though he’s an avowed Lovecraft pasticher, so the answer is apparently yes for that particular case. Alas, other instances are not so easy – consider any Mel Brooks comedy. Those things pride themselves on straddling the knife’s edge between mocking bigotry and just plain-ol’-bigotry, but as times change, so does the place where that edge lies. Is it, perhaps, inevitable that today’s envelope-pusher should end up tomorrow’s brick in the Establishment?

    4.) NOT assuming (3), can artistic potential ever outweigh moral obligations? In other words, “Screw who this might hurt/give terrible ideas to, art is art and it must be free!”

    I don’t have a particular example to trot out here, but I reckon the Truffaut principle is worth bringing up here. Let’s say you wanna make a war movie to test out, I dunno, some cool new way of drawing explosions. Is your artistic experimentation worth the glorification of war, if only to a handful more people?

    5.) Assuming 1 and any number of its successors, what action should we, the consumers, take?

    You (wisely) don’t hang out in the Tumblrsphere nearly as much as I do, but lemme tell you something – the “anti-censorship” debates on there are fucking WILD. I don’t have the time or the mental coherence to give you a historical play-by-play, but I’ve seen people roaring that *anything* giving their favorite character so much as a hangnail needs to get taken down stat, and I’ve seen people defending stories that would give the Marquis de Sade nightmares. Whenever someone on either side is losing, the word “CENSORSHIP!” is imminent.

    It may be the case that we’ll never have an objective definition of “censorship”, as any number of things can lead to a certain work, or idea, or culture being squeezed out of the public discourse; often, the government (which tends to be included in most Dictionary definitions of the word) doesn’t have to lift a finger. But nailing it down has arguably become more important than ever, given the sheer importance – and fragility – of reputation in today’s media-driven world. I think we can all broadly agree that asking the government to outlaw something with Problematic Content is bad, but is it really much safer to form government-free Internet mobs to put down a certain Problematic Work/Creator?

    (By the way – it’s funny you bring up Louis C.K., because I understand that Disney is redubbing all of his voice-clips. On a tangentially-related note, am I the only one who thinks the One-Armed Monstrosity was the *scariest* of all the Weirdmageddon monsters, precisely *because* of how well he embodies won’t-take-no-for-an-answer anxieties? I swear to God, I didn’t know about any of the #MeToo stuff when I watched the episode, it just jumped out to me.)

    (By the way II, Electric Boogaloo – I’ve heard it said that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is the most-loopholed piece of law in human history, which amuses me almost as much as it depresses me. This doesn’t tie into anything especially important but I thought I’d just share that.)

    1. “[Mel Brooks comedies] pride themselves on straddling the knife’s edge between mocking bigotry and just plain-ol’-bigotry.”

      Um…what? Could I know stuff like gay jokes and stuff like that weren’t actually his strong suit, but could you please provide an instance where a Mel Brooks bit was explicitly bigoted?

  4. I wish this blog post had existed several weeks ago; you said almost exactly what I was trying to say in a thread, but much more skillfully. Totally citing you next time I get into any discussion about this stuff.

    I made a difficult decision to throw away some books recently. That’s a big deal for me, I treat books as borderline holy objects, and will dutifully lug hundreds of them with me every time I move to a new place until I die, despite my favorites all being on a tablet that weighs less than a pound. But my dad reminded me I still had a big box of them in his basement from before I left for college, and I picked them up. Oh dear; Bill Cosby and Woody Allen were in attendance.

    Ordinarily I would donate them, I mean it’s not like they get any royalties of someone buys their books from Goodwill. But I felt like driving all the way there just for these two books still felt like too much reverence, you know? Like I’d feel kinda scummy for putting forth that much effort on their behalf. Maybe if I had a bunch of other books I wanted to donate too, but I was keeping the others. What made me feel even more conflicted was my decision to keep a couple of books by Scott Adams, the Dilbert guy; he’s been a pretty vocal Trump supporter since 2016. But all he’s done is say and write things I strongly disagree with, he’s never actually hurt anyone.

    So I guess that’s where I drew my personal line. I also own the movie Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski is a rapist), Beatles albums (John Lennon was a domestic abuser), and the works of H.P. Lovecraft (serious racist). But as you outlined above, Rosemary was the work of many people, Lovecraft is dead and getting no benefit from my buying his work, and the Beatles were multiple people AND Lennon is dead.

    So yeah, everyone needs to decide for themselves what they think deserves and doesn’t deserve their support, and no single set of rules will ever suit all people and situations.

    Also that Gravity Falls episode was re-dubbed without Louis CK and his credit was removed, so you can totally find a copy without him to watch and enjoy (https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-news/disney-redubs-louis-c-k-gravity-falls-voice-role-202522/).

  5. I’d say your response is perfectly reasonable. Personally, instead of just going to the theater to watch movies, I’ll just borrow them from my local library, since it won’t lead to money going to any shady people who may have made it.

  6. Pretty reasonable analysis, here. Kudos.

    Since you mentioned it (and others have brought it up), I should note that in the case of Louis CK’s role in the Gravity Falls episode “Weirdmageddon, Part I”, as soon as CK admitted to sexual misconduct, Alex Hirsch rerecorded the character’s lines. If you still don’t want to watch the episode in question, I understand. I just wanted to inform you for future reference.

  7. I know many people will take issue with this stance, but I’ve never had a personal problem regarding art and artist as two totally separate entities, even though the former obviously reflects SOMETHING of the latter. I believe that I can fully appreciate of someone’s creative ability in one hand and fully recognize and condemn that creator’s personal behavior in the other hand. One doesn’t diminish the other, at least for me.

  8. I think points 2-5 here are the crucial ones here- it overlaps with the ‘just because it’s not your cup of tea doesn’t mean they’re wrong to listen to it’, though with an extra dose of ‘if somebody is actively boycotting something for *reasons* don’t force it down their throat.

    I mean I’m someone who literally bought tickets for a full Ring Cycle as a birthday treat, and I’ve got a friend who utterly detests Wagner and has an expressed desire to never hear a note in his life. There’s no disagreement there because we both know where the boundary is.

  9. Mouse, I think you raise eminently fair points about a besetting obsession of Our Times and I tend to agree this problem of authorship is a needling and convoluted one to which it is very difficult to offer a single clear, unambiguous answer (though I do happen to think that pirating a work simply so that you can enjoy it “guilt-free” has to be the most unethical and self-defeating suggestion on your entire list; if you can’t enjoy a work of Art Guilt-free WITHOUT committing a criminal act how can you hope to do so after committing that act – and possibly sponsoring a criminal enterprise in the process?).

  10. One more thing – I think it fair to decide that you dislike an author long dead as an individual and that you dislike the message that they hope to convey, but it seems unfair to judge the language in which they deliver that message by the standards of Our Own Age.

    There is very little in Creation more mutable than language, save perhaps our understanding of what the words & phrases of that language actually MEAN (consider, for instance, what “Keyboard” meant to Mozart and what it means to us); consider also that someday posterity will look back on our Generation and employ their understanding of what language means (in all its words & phrases) to twist what we say & write to suit their understanding of Our Own Era as inhabited by a most unconscionable generation of bigots, fascists and troglodytic fools (no matter what our exact culpability as individuals for the injustices, scandals and prejudices of our Age might actually be, no matter what our personal beliefs actually WERE).

    Imagine, for example, that the word “Black” as applied to Africans or African-Americans were to take on the same connotations of Racial Injustice as the word “Negro” (previously a thoroughly neutral term, to the point where Mr Frederick Douglas and other dignitaries would appear to have used it of themselves without shame) and some future historian took this to mean any person referring to Mr Obama as a “Black President” must have been purely bigoted.

    In Essence – Judge others as you would prefer to be Judged by others (especially when it comes to the use of language) and do your best to understand the context in which a work was written (social, political and historic), so that you can judge it more fairly (also remember that Creators are individuals – they deserve to be judged for their own actions, not for the Sins of their era).

  11. 7) It is perfectly acceptable, and indeed laudable, to pirate the work of offenders so that they don’t see a red cent.

    Often the artists don’t have profit participation so paying or not paying does not matter unless they are someone like Weinstein.

  12. I remember one video discussing whether the creator of something turning out to be bad justified pirating the work. The youtuber said that this would be akin to making off with a bunch of Nestle water bottles from a local supermarket. It was an interesting analogy, for sure, and it seemed the crux of his argument was that the bad apple wasn’t the only person working on the piece, and that punishing the other people who were is wrong (though Chinoiserie’s point above complicates that some, especially if the company itself is awful).

    As for me, it seems I probably don’t have much to say, as I’m the one who made the (probably controversial) comment that I still like Tenniel’s illustrations in Alice in Wonderland, so… *vanishes into the greenery like Homer once again*

  13. I love Monty Python, but for the love of God, they did go too far with that ‘Song of Sperm’ in Meaning of Life where they had dozens of children, a few of them naked and bathing, around while singing a song on sperm.

    That… isn’t enough to make me stop watching the whole movie, or the rest of Python’s oeuvre available to me, but that segment I skip it. It’s just too horribly uncomfortable and creepy.

    1. After reading this particular comment one can’t decide if I should scowl at that mental image (really, really poor taste there) or laugh my head off at the fact a group called Monty PYTHON actually had the outstandingly hilarious shamelessness to sing something called “Song of Sperm” (really, if only one of their members had been called “Richard” the universe might well have exploded under the sheer weight of extravagantly phallic comedy).

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