Loving the art when you loathe the artist


I recently watched cult classic, Seven. The film confirmed the prowess of director David Fincher, and revolutionised the genre of detective thriller. The production holds up remarkably well 25 years later, and the gritty aesthetic has trickled into the vocabulary of every modern cop show. However, the choice of Kevin Spacey to play perverted killer John Doe, now feels stomach-churningly uncomfortable. Spacey has faced accusations of sexual assault by 15 people. His own brother admitted, “His fans love the sinister characters he plays, but he’s not acting, that’s really him.” Is it ever possible to separate art from the artist, especially when the two seem so intertwined?

This question is particularly pertinent right now, as actors Armie Hammer and Shia LaBeouf have become embroiled in accusations of abuse. Alleged screenshots between Hammer and an anonymous woman have been leaked, including disturbing conversations about cannibalism and sexual violence. FKA Twigs has also recently come forward with a lawsuit against Shia LaBeouf, citing ‘relentless’ abuse. 

Do these revelations mean that it’s time to tear down the Call Me By Your Name poster, and snatch the Transformer figurines away from our younger siblings? People often approach the debate of whether art can be separated from its artist from very theoretical viewpoints. Barthes’ theory of the death of the author can certainly hold truth; the intentions behind someone’s creations don’t have to reflect their own views. But the financial framework and power dynamics that surround these influential figures are very real. Whenever the grey tones of the Weinstein Company logo appear at the start of the film, a dark shadow is cast on the rest of the production. Whenever an R. Kelly song comes on at a party I immediately skip. Listening to lyrics fetishizing young girls and violence from a man accused by so many women of abuse is sickening. I could try and ignore the disturbing similarities between his lyrics and the accusations levelled against him, rationalising about the death of the author, but that doesn’t change the fact that the streaming numbers go up on Spotify, and the track is gaining revenue. Consuming the music and films of these creators puts pennies in their pockets, and feels like forgiveness and a strange complicity. 

Whenever the grey tones of the Weinstein Company logo appear at the start of the film, a dark shadow is cast on the rest of the production

But where can we draw the line? Is it still okay to listen to my battered Michael Jackson CD because I bought it years ago? What if I pirate the music instead, and then nobody can financially gain? How do you reconcile the love you have for a piece of music or film, with the knowledge that someone who does monstrous things created it? It is a complex issue with no straightforward answers. Josephine Livingstone suggests that we should prioritise our own interpretations of art, away from the creator. “If they don’t get to dictate how I interpret their films, then they don’t get to control anything about the film industry. We, the viewers, do.” By refusing to unite the artist with their art, we take away their interpretive power and reclaim it for ourselves. It takes a small village to produce a blockbuster film, and arguably we shouldn’t condemn something because of one team member’s actions.

We should remember that the success of Call Me By Your Name wasn’t just reliant on Hammer’s performance, but Luca Guadagnino’s direction, and Chalamet’s dreamy long looks into the sunset. But it doesn’t feel quite that easy. By consuming their content, the artist’s institutional power that facilitates such abuse is only strengthened. The more I stream a Johnny Depp film, the more likely it is that the accusations of abuse against him will be overlooked in favour of the box office appeal he brings.

By consuming their content, the artist’s institutional power that facilitates such abuse is only strengthened

We are not hard pressed for creators, and there is no excuse to promote people who abuse their position of power. Would someone who is not in the public eye, or as privileged, be afforded the same forgiveness? The problem lies in the glorification of these creators. Someone who is a talented artist can also be flawed and cruel. We can admire the beauty of Roman Polanski’s work, without turning a blind eye to his crimes. It’s a difficult problem to resolve and one that relies on our own individual principles. The outbursts of Shia LaBeouf’s character against his partner in new release, Pieces of a Woman feel even more harrowing in light of FKA Twig’s allegations. When actors align so disturbingly with the characters they play it feels impossible to truly separate art from the artist.

Image: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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