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Separating Art from the Artist: Where Do You Stand?

woodyRecently, I’ve been listening to a (very funny) podcast called Craig’s List, wherein the host, comedian Craig Cackowski, and his wife Carla watch one of Craig’s 100 favorite movies and then discuss it. Their tastes are fairly divergent, and since they’re both seasoned improv comics, they’re able to milk the conflict for all it’s worth. It’s tailor-made for a list-obsessed movie buff like me.

But the show’s host said something in a recent episode that got me thinking. Typically, Craig withholds mention of the upcoming movies on his top 100 list, because he wants listeners to look forward to the reveal at the end of each episode. He has let slip, however, that Woody Allen has a whopping seven films that appear on his list. If you somehow didn’t know, Woody Allen has been accused by one of his adopted children of molestation, and, in any case, had an affair with and later married the adopted daughter of his one-time partner, Mia Farrow. Yuck.

Now, one of the things that I really like about Craig’s List is that both Craig and Carla are unafraid to confront some of his favorite movies’ more problematic elements. Consistently, though, Craig finds ways to justify the inclusion of movies that have a lot of issues (Gone with the Wind is probably the best example), while Carla often takes a more critical view. This makes sense, given that it’s his list. It’s hard to cut ties to things we love.

Which is fine, of course. We’re allowed to like what we like, and if what we like contains some questionable elements, then we should acknowledge those and consider how those portions of our favorite things might have been handled differently.

But what Craig’s List has pushed me to think about isn’t just how I relate to problematic movies from a bygone age, but whether or not there are some pieces of art that I shouldn’t relate to at all.

Now, listen, I know that this isn’t a new conversation, and my intent here isn’t to reach a hard and fast rule about separating art from the artist who creates it. I’m not sure there can or should be a one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to this kind of thing, but I am sure that everyone of us should know where we stand. And that knowledge begins with asking some hard questions, including, “Am I making excuses for myself so that I can continue to enjoy this director’s/actor’s/musician’s/author’s work without thinking about what, exactly, I’m supporting.

Because, see, it’s hard to argue that, when you support an artist by paying for the privilege of enjoying their work, you’re sending them a signal of approval. If you give your dog a treat after he poops on your floor, don’t come complaining to me about the carpet stains.

We don’t treat artists like our pooping dogs because, almost all of the time, they’re not pooping in our house. Woody Allen’s alleged molestation of his children happened a long time ago, and it seems remote and unconnected to Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors. Casey Affleck’s alleged sexual assaults seem like they’re a world away from his award-winning performance in Manchester by the Sea. I could go on like this for a while. There’s Mel Gibson. There’s Roman Polanski. There’s Bill Cosby. There’s Chris Brown.

In each of these cases, it’s possible to say, “The awful things these people have done or been accused by multiple people of doing are terrible, and they should be punished to whatever degree the criminal justice system deems appropriate,” and then go right along watching and listening to their stuff, which puts money in their pockets or at least increases their cultural footprint. It’s possible, but it takes some curious mental gymnastics to ignore the conflict such an approach should take.

But like I said, it’s hard to cut ties with the things we love. And beyond that, even if we agree that we should cut those ties with a given artist, where, specifically, is the line? How serious does the transgression need to be before we swear someone off? Obviously (I would hope) charges of rape, sexual assault, and unrepentant bigotry will do the trick, but beyond that?

I think it’s a worthy question, and one that, given some thought, each of us could probably answer for ourselves. I don’t however, think that it’s an easy question to answer, which is why most of us don’t bother asking it in the first place. I’m not letting myself off the hook here. I’ve wrestled with this whole art vs. the artist conundrum for years, and only recently have I began to actually change my viewing, reading, and listening choices as a result of what I learn about some artists.

At one time, I would’ve simply refused to deny myself something enjoyable simply because a person involved in its creation was an asshat. It’s not my fault, I would’ve reasoned, so why should I be punished for their bad deeds?

But in the end, that was just a way for me to have my cake (loudly condemn artists’ horrifying actions) and eat it too (still consume their work).

And in any case, there’s just so much great stuff out there to watch, listen to, and read, so I’m not really denying myself anything by choosing not engage with art made by terrible people. I’m really just freeing up space to reward not-so-terrible people for the good work they’ve done.

That’s where I’ve ended up after a lot of thought, but what say you? Where do you draw the line that separates art from the artist?

Article written by Josh Corman

Josh Corman is a marketing writer and Contributing Editor at bookriot.com. He lives in Central Kentucky.