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Arts & Culture Opinion

Aw, No More Kevin Spacey?

American Beauty. Braveheart. Rain Man. Driving Miss Daisy. Rocky. Pulp Fiction.

In recent months, hundreds of indelible classics have been tainted by allegations of sexual misconduct against the films’ directors, actors, producers, and other contributors. Up for debate is what we do with the art that these allegedly deplorable people have crafted for us––art that, up until this point, we have unanimously loved.

As of late, I’ve found myself frustrated by the many ignorant solutions to this moral dilemma that have gained traction on social media and in real-life conversations. I’ll tell you what I don’t like about the answers I’ve been getting, and then I’ll propose an alternative that might bridge the poles of this debate.

Let’s imagine a normal, everyday conversation.

I ask you, “Hey, you, what’s your favorite movie?”

You reply, “Hey, you!” and then go on to name your favorite movie.

I agree, “Yes, that’s a fantastic one. Great choice.”

I then list the names of people who worked on the movie, in creative and behind-the-scenes roles alike, who have acted atrociously in their personal lives.

The sheer fact that every single movie, novel, song, or play you’ve ever enjoyed has likely had someone working on it who has done something terrible––be it sexual assault, domestic abuse, or anything that makes you say, “oh, no, I liked him”––is a problem in and of itself. But that is not the problem we’re tackling here. The problem is that after I tell you the disgraced people who’ve worked on your favorite movie, you will likely have one of three standard, fundamentally flawed, responses:

1. “Well, he’s awful. And now I no longer like that movie.”

This seems to be the most politically correct option as of right now. In any liberal bubble we wander into, this choice will award us a few nods of respect for really going all the way in sticking it to the patriarchy. However, the ideology that we are peddling with this option is intrinsically reductive, for it allows the wrongdoings of one individual to diminish and discard the hard work of hundreds of others, let alone the artwork itself, which isn’t necessarily influenced by the wrongdoing. I fear that we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater when we talk like this, conflating our simple laziness with social activism.

It is easy to just say, “Well, that movie’s done for.” “Can’t read that author’s new book.” “No more listening to that artist.” But it’s lazy to abandon memorable, important art without first debating the impact that a certain contributor’s personal offenses had on the art, and whether or not the art should suffer for the artist’s crimes.

Boycotting every single piece of art that has a scumbag’s name on the canvas or in the credits is not only negligent and ineffective as a means of social activism; it is unrealistic. We can’t feasibly claim to know every single person who’s done something atrocious, and so we can’t apply this boycott universally. Realistically speaking, the only way to truly go through with this approach is to write off all of film as tainted. Otherwise we can’t be certain that anything we’ve ever enjoyed is ‘clean’ from the contamination of some pervert or abuser, who contributed in some way––large or small––to an artistic creation which has brought us so much joy. Sure, we can find a list of 100-or-so big names to “watch out for,” but we’ll still be actively watching ‘tainted’ movies in the indefinite meantime until some #MeToo article surfaces to ruin that one for us, too.

Those that support the abandonment of these movies often claim that by continuing to watch these terrible people’s movies, we are actively rewarding their behaviors by making them millionaires. The massive oversight of this claim is the misconception of where that box office money is really going. At the end of the day, it’s not like those fifteen dollars you spend at the theater are going directly into Harvey Weinstein’s pocket; they are distributed systematically to every deserving member of the cast and crew who worked on a movie that we paid to see. Then, much of that money is reinvested into the production of another movie, the potential of which is undefined and unlimited.

The price that these men must pay shouldn’t be reducible to a dollar value; a more proper punishment is a social one. The price they pay comes in the form of public and private scorn––from us, from their friends and family, and from other industry professionals. And eventually, the price will become financial as well, as these men will stop getting jobs because their names will be too sullied to attach to any project.

On top of that, it’s not easy to just stop enjoying something on a dime. The scenes you previously loved are still amazing, the acting still impeccable, the story still mesmerizing. You still relate to the emotions of the main character in the same way you used to, and the villain still earns your unflinching respect. The disavowal of your love for a movie is not only extreme; it is unlikely. You can stop watching this movie, sure, but you can rarely stop actually enjoying it––that is, unless the nature of the scumbag’s transgression impacts you on a personal level.

In the majority of cases, the pleasure we derive from art is very much second-nature. We don’t have much of a choice in bopping our heads to our favorite songs, nor in smiling at our favorite movie lines. And for this reason, the notion of saying that we will no longer like these movies is oftentimes transparently false.

This option is very all-or-nothing, and in any heated political or social debate, all-or-nothing solutions seldom win out. The next option, though still flawed for a number of reasons, is a bit more moderate:

2. “Oh, no…Now I feel bad for still liking that movie.”

Some of the faults of the first response are present again in this one, though at least I appreciate this one’s honesty. Here we do not banish the movie into oblivion, never to be watched or enjoyed again, but rather we acknowledge that our love for the movie is relatively unconditional.

The main problem with this approach is that we shouldn’t have to feel bad as a default for enjoying something that brings us pleasure, under any circumstances. We can’t just dismiss the brilliance of a piece of art, nor the way it makes us feel while we experience it, simply due to a contributor’s unethical personal decisions––especially when those decisions bear no influence on the final product. If the only criterion that we need to feel bad about enjoying a piece of art is the fact that a jerk worked on it, then we’re going to spend a lot of energy feeling bad about a lot of movies we love.

We shouldn’t be forced to feel ashamed for our very natural reactions to enjoyable art. When a memorable, emotional scene comes on in a movie we’ve loved since we were kids, we’re not thinking about the domestic abuse allegations against the lead actor, or about all the women that the film’s executive producer sexually assaulted. And as morally remiss as that may sound, it’s completely normal. We shouldn’t be thinking about those things in that moment. When we read their names in the credits an hour later, we should cringe, yes. But they shouldn’t plague our entire experience of the movie. Because if they do, then we’ve allowed these people’s crimes––committed independently of the movie––to spoil some genuinely excellent art. In bringing these men into the light of infamy, I fear we often sacrifice art that does not deserve to be brought down with them, and in doing so, we––the audience––are the ones who suffer.

Art is a collective endeavor, and requires more hands on board than we could count; it seems thus unfair to discredit the final product of thousands when one hand is dirty. Refusing to recognize beautiful art as beautiful is an ignorant oversight. Perhaps an unsung victim of the #MeToo movement are the exquisite stories these ugly men tell, these stories that hundreds of others pour their blood, sweat, and tears into as well.

The third response is quite easy to pick apart:

3. “His offenses don’t matter at all. It’s still my favorite movie.”

Just as the first option was reductive, this option is equally (but oppositely) reductive. While I do believe that a movie should not automatically be ruined by a contributor’s personal offenses, it would be ignorant to call his offenses insignificant.

Supporting terrible people in terrible industries only encourages more of the same behaviors, in the business and in our society at large. Applauding entertainers who have been convicted of terrible things tends to feel immoral, because the parts of them we love are often inextricable from those that we find repulsive.

For example, saying “I’m a huge Chris Brown fan” after 2009 is a little uncomfortable. While you may genuinely adore Chris Brown the Singer and unequivocally detest that same Chris Brown the Abusive Boyfriend, drawing the division between his two personas seems like an awkward way to  appease your conscience and justify your questionable admiration.

And so, in lieu of any of the three problematic responses outlined above, I propose an alternative, which may appease those on both sides of the debate. My solution is one of selective admiration, and the decisive measure is the dissociability between the artist and his art. We shouldn’t write off the art altogether, but we shouldn’t write off the wrongdoing altogether, either. The two are not wholly distinct, nor are they wholly inseparable. The main question we must ask ourselves when awkwardly wondering whether or not we’re ‘allowed’ to enjoy this movie is: has the artist’s crime contaminated his art?

I’ll give an example of what I mean.

There is an episode of Louis C.K.’s semi-autobiographical television dramedy, Louie, in which he is threatened by a group of intimidating young men in their twenties while he is out with his young daughters. The episode is intensely real, brilliantly acted, and ends on a very contemplative, unconventional note. In my opinion, it is one of the most heartfelt and realistic slices of life that has ever been brought to television. So now, before I can re-watch it without guilt, I ask myself, “Has Louis C.K.’s crime contaminated his art?” Louis C.K. did masturbate in front of non-consenting women. Abhorrent, yes. Though it has nothing to do with this episode and should not restrict my enjoyment of it.

There is also a hilarious skit of Louis C.K.’s in which he jokes about the frequency and disgusting nature of his masturbation. I was listening to Pandora Comedy Radio in the car with my mother on a road trip when this bit came on, and immediately as he started talking about masturbation, my mother and I experienced the same level of discomfort, given how close these jokes cut to the reality of his disgusting behavior. The questions that run through your head run along the lines of, “Is he describing a time in which he did it in front of one of those women?” You genuinely never know, and thus the art is not dissociable from the artist. It’s a rather intrinsic gut feeling that guides this selective admiration process. And so, bits like these do not pass the test.

There will be art you love that passes the test, and art you love that doesn’t. The plot of Good Will Hunting, devoid of sexual misconduct, is wholly dissociable from the shameful behaviors of the Affleck brothers. On the other hand, director Roman Polanski’s statutory rape convictions do shine a damning light upon Chinatown, a film that revolves around relationships between older men and underage women.

This heuristic goes beyond movies as well. For example, despite his ridiculous, controversial remarks, Kanye West’s upbeat hip-hop music can be easily dissociated from his Twitter remarks about revoking the 13th Amendment. Conversely, R. Kelly’s undeniable classic “Ignition (Remix)” alludes to the very legitimate allegations of sexual misconduct made against him, and so perhaps––as hard as it is––this song we must leave behind. And in the world of established art, Pablo Picasso’s well-documented misogyny and rape accusations should taint our view of the nude women he painted in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but should have no tarnishing influence on the political statement he made with Guernica.

This criteria may allow you to maintain your moral integrity while also not forcing you to renounce all your former favorites. You don’t want to support terrible people, and you want to stand in solidarity with the victims of these crimes, but you also recognize the impossibility of a comprehensive boycott on all scumbags’ art. Here’s your middle ground.

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