Arts & Culture

Cancel Culture: Where do we draw the line controversial artists?

Artists can do horrible things, how do we handle their art after we find out? Can we appreciate beautiful art once we know the ugly truth behind it?

It’s disappointing. It’s like every couple weeks some shocking news comes out and we feel the need to cancel another pop culture icon. Michael Jackson, R Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Lori Loughlin, Melanie Martinez, Chris Brown, 6ix9ine… even Picasso was problematic. While many of these people will or already have faced criminal punishment, there is still a question that falls to us: as consumers, what role do we play in the punishment of artists that do terrible things?

It’s a weird grey area. Does liking the art of a bad person make me a bad person? It’s hard to know. Where do we draw the line? If we keep listening to the music and watching the movies, are we condoning unforgivable actions like rape and abuse? Are we sending the message that artists can get away with terrible things, as long as their work is good enough? Can we really detach the art from the artist?

We need to think about what kind of message we send to stars. “If you’re art is special, we’ll let you off the hook for your heinous acts,” is not the message I want to send. A lot of people seem to agree, tearing down and exiling artists once the ugly truth is revealed, deleting music, burning merch, and going on Twitter rants to make sure everyone knows what time it is. Or at least that’s the treatment for the living ones. It’s easier to separate the art from the artist when they’re dead because they themselves aren’t personally benefiting from our financial contributions. But even then, do we want to say that if you die before we find out, you’re home free? No, even if you’re dead, you’re still up to be judged.

So, what do we do? Banish the offender from society? Pretend it never happened? Something in between? Unfortunately, there’s no one catch-all protocol we can use to act morally while also not losing art.

Sometimes our moral dilemma solves itself, like if you find out an employee at Burger King was stepping on your lettuce before they served it to you, you wouldn’t go to Burger King anymore. But once that employee is fired and the problem is resolved, you can cautiously order a burger again. The company took action to resolve the problem so you can enjoy a burger. That’s the case for Harvey Weinstein, this is a situation where other people have stepped in and the consumers don’t have to do the heavy lifting to detach him from the art.

Harvey Weinstein may be an Oscar-winning film producer, but he did a lot of abhorrent things. In 2017, more than 13 allegations of sexual harassment and rape were published against Weinstein, leading to him being kicked off the board of his own company after his acts were brought to light. Now that he’s not a part of the Miramax company anymore, it’s easier to watch and enjoy the films knowing he won’t see a penny of it. Though it pains me to know that so many films I’ve loved had been giving money and power to this man (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Spy Kids, Halloween), knowing that renting Sharkboy and Lavagirl at the video store as a kid in a small way was contributing to his success and power. I’m glad these women spoke up, because if they hadn’t, it’d probably still be happening.

So great, his punishment is out of our hands and we can continue to be lazy and not face our problems, all while keeping our favorite movies. But when it’s up to us to condemn the transgressors, sometimes we lose the art. That’s the case for Melanie Martinez.

I used to listen to Melanie Martinez, but when it came out that she had allegedly raped her friend, I and most people I knew immediately deleted all her music and unfollowed her. I was disheartened, I loved her music, but I didn’t want my money going to a rapist. Sure her music is good, but I can do without it, and I can’t hear it the same way anymore anyway. The world lost good art due to her actions spoiling her music, and thus she has largely been erased.

But what do we do when we can’t do without it? We can’t just erase legends, and it would be a much greater loss if we stopped consumer their art. Still, it feels wrong to appreciate the art a horrible person. That’s the case for Michael Jackson.

I remember when Michael Jackson died. I was six and riding in the backseat of the family car, his greatest hits CD was playing and my mom was telling me about him. She described how she remembered him: an incredible artist, a real icon, the King of Pop. Little did we know, there are people who remember Michael very differently. Wade Robson and James Safechuck alleged that they were sexually assaulted by Jackson as kids, along with many others. But he’s an icon, we can’t just erase him, it’s Michael Jackson. So what do we do? It’s hard to know. We can agree that sexually assaulting kids isn’t okay, but does that make his music bad? Maybe not objectively, but does giving his estate our money send the wrong message? I mean, he’s not getting the money, but are people that helped cover up the crimes reaping the benefits? It’s hard when we have great memories associated to him and his music, but again, I can’t hear it the same way anymore. Knowing what I know about what he did, I can’t help but feel sick when I see a picture of him, and when I hear his music I immediately being to remember all the appalling details recounted in interviews, the dark secrets hiding behind fun pop beats, impressive dancing and a too-friendly smile.

And then there’s the historical artists — those artists whose work has shaped the world of art. They’re studied at art school and admired by millions. That’s the case for Pablo Picasso.

Anyone could recognize a Picasso. 46 years after he died, he still has well-visited exhibitions hanging in museums around the world. He had such a deep impact on art, but he hated women. He was terribly misogynistic, saying “Every time I change wives I should burn the last one.” Knowing that changes the way I see a Picasso. But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking at his paintings. When I see his work I can’t help but see the horrible person behind it, especially when it’s represented in the art. Like in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, I can see the objectification of women in it and it makes me feel sick, it makes me feel the same cold chill that the men that sit too close to me on the bus bring. On the other hand Guernica is a masterpiece, I can see the pain, it’s so good that I almost feel the suffering. His cultural impact is undeniably important, he’s praised for being the best artist in the 20th century, and maybe he is, but it’s equally important to remember that he wasn’t a good person so not to glorify him. When we’re talking about the “best artist in the 20th century” it’s easy to see him as a sort of god character, the type of guy kids say they want to be just like when they grow up, but you don’t want to be just like him, kids.

Separating the art from the artist is a very personal endeavor and can be a challenge when the artist was someone you really admired, but it’s a challenge we need to face. We can’t just be complicit and let people get away with horrendous crimes just because they make good art. Maybe, if we get used to holding artists to higher standards, artists will hold themselves to those standards too. As consumers of art we have a duty to the good artists out there and to society at large to make choices about who we kick out of Hollywood and who we can carefully keep.

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