When discussing the work of disgraced artists, separating the art from the artist becomes harder than ever.
By Pranjal Pande.
I started watching House of Cards in 2016 and since then I’ve had a poster of Kevin Spacey portraying Frank Underwood, the protagonist and anti-hero of the Netflix show House of Cards, stuck on my room’s wall. I’ve spent hours discussing the show inside and outside with friends and even teachers. When I first heard the sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey, I was nothing less than shocked. I never would’ve never Spacey thought Spacey, the recently knighted Emmy winning actor, would be caught up in the ongoing #MeToo campaign. But after hearing these allegations, and Spacey’s attempts to soften the blow by coming out as gay, I not only became disgusted for Spacey, but also started feeling differently about a television show that I called my favorite.
When an artist is accused of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era there are strict guidelines to punish the accused and there is mostly an exact step reaction: shock, condemnation, and reconciliation. In most cases the first two steps are near-universal, everyone is shocked that an artist who many saw as god-like (take Morgan Freeman for instance, acclaimed for literally playing god or a genius) could commit such an atrocious crime. Next comes the condemnation: high profile celebrities and people close to the accused come out to condemn the crimes committed and call for justice. The third step is the hardest, reconciling with the artist after he/she has committed a form of sexual misconduct.
Reconciling doesn’t have to mean explicitly forgiving the person for their actions, it could also mean watching a movie featuring them or listening to their music. Two distinct examples of this are the comedian Louis C.K. and actor Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K was accused of heinous sexual misconduct nearly a year ago, he apologized for his actions and was publicly condemned, everyone said his comedic career was over. However, nine months after the allegations, C.K. has made a comeback show, received an extended ovation and doesn’t talk about his past. Many people have chosen to reconcile with his actions and continue to watch his stand-up shows, thereby promoting him. Now we contrast this with Kevin Spacey who was accused of sexual misconduct, with a minor, and was subsequently condemned (Spacey even tried to apologize and come out as gay in an attempt to divert attention, trying to pull a tab from the conniving Frank Underwood). He was fired by Netflix, removed from a fully filmed movie, and has not appeared in any new role since,. This is the correct way to deal with a case of sexual misconduct.
Now many argue that the art itself doesn’t promote discrimination and hence you can enjoy the art without considering the artist’s actions. But separating the art and the artist are simply impossible, regardless of how loved or critically acclaimed it is. One reason for this is that by continuing to watch, read, listen, or view the art of an accused artist you are implicitly supporting them monetarily and not punishing them for their crimes, which sets a moral burden which you remember every time you enjoy their work. The moral burden being that you are supporting, explicitly or implicitly, the actions of an accused. The second reason is that feeling you get when you consume art created by somebody who you know has committed a crime, I know I’m not the only person who feels unsettled by this, the internet is littered with people saying they can’t look at an actor the same way after they know what they’ve done in real life. The example of Bill Cosby, who went from most loved to most hated, is apt here. Comedian John Oliver once joked, “Bill Cosby walking through walls was creepy in the show, but now it’s a whole new level”, and this perfectly summarizes how not only your feeling towards art changes when your view towards the artist changes, but on a more overarching level, how you can’t have an objective view of the artist’s art if you know certain truths about them.
In many cases, the punishment may not occur through legal or criminal proceedings due to the overwhelming publicity that cases like this often face and how old the allegations are, but that doesn’t mean the accused should be allowed to go scot free. The artist, and his art, has to publicly condemned and shamed for his crimes which includes not supporting them through their art.
I return to my Kevin Spacey poster. One day a friend came to my house remarked how that once powerful poster now has a whole new meaning. That night while looking at the poster I realized I no longer saw Frank Underwood, ruthless anti-hero, but instead, a disgraced actor. I took the poster down, and while doing so tore it, because it no longer represented the show I loved, and it was an accurate representation for my new feelings to the actor and the show.