I’ve been thinking about this question that gets asked over and over again, every time some famous (frequently/usually) male person is discovered to be an abuser of other people–children, women, men, all of the above. It’s a rhetorical question that is becoming less and less rhetorical. The answer is always vague, which is why we keep asking it. But I think it’s time that we stop wavering so much, getting theoretical and pretending like this is grad school instead of real life. We need to pick a side. The question is: “Can we separate the art from the artist?” Starting now the only ethical answer is: “No.”
I get it. We all like Roman Polanski’s movies, Bill Cosby’s sitcoms, Jian Ghomeshi’s interviews, Woody Allen’s comedy. We like those things and don’t want to feel guilty for liking them–we don’t feel like our laughter or interest should implicate us in any crime. And hey! I like those things too! I’m not a robot! Bill Cosby’s was basically the only show I was ever allowed to watch as a kid, when we lived at my grandma’s house. Jian Ghomeshi asks insightful questions; he’s a fucking great interviewer. BUT. He shouldn’t get to keep his job if he’s assaulting women, if he’s sexually harassing women at that very job that has made him so famous. Bill Cosby shouldn’t get to go on TV, get paid tons of money, even if he is funny. He shouldn’t get a tiny asterisk by his name in biographies and at awards shows, with a small footnote saying “he’s been accused of rape.” If the story isn’t about the abuse he caused, the pain he created, he shouldn’t get the biographies at all. We can say, “separate the art from the artist” but what about the women whose lives these men have utterly demolished? Who trusted them and hoped these men would help them realize their professional goals? Who have lost hope in humans? Who’ve put their dreams, their art, aside because they’ve had to deal with PTSD? Being sexually assaulted is not just a thing that happens to you one day and then it’s done. Sexual assault is ongoing. It changes the map of your life and the way you relate to the world. When we say “separate the art from the artist” in effect what we are saying is “this man’s work is more important than this woman’s work.” Why? Do you know what this woman could make?
It’s only recently that women have gotten to make art at all and still it’s a struggle for women to get their work out and respected. When I was in high school, it was totally legitimate for people to say to me, “girls aren’t funny.” That was less than 15 years ago. Still men dominate literary arts, film, visual arts, comedy–pretty much any forward facing art movement that is about creative expression as opposed to functional crafts is majority men. This isn’t because men are better at art, or funnier or smarter or cooler or more creative. It’s because women don’t have the same access and opportunities and encouragement to be creative that men do, because some men in a position of power of systematically make it difficult or impossible for women to create anything, by abusing them, harassing them, demeaning them or just ignoring them.
Basically what I’m saying is that it’s impossible to ever separate art from artists, on a universal scale–no work is created in a vacuum and everything is a product of its context. Men need to treat women with respect, no matter how funny their movies are or how smart they are or how great their paintings. Humans need to treat humans with respect, create circumstances where anyone can become an artist without worrying they will get assaulted, raped, drugged, endlessly harassed on the internet, stalked. And when we say, “yeah Woody Allen definitely molested his child but I still am going to see his latest movie,” we have to acknowledge we are not innocent, that what we are saying is that a few laughs and some interesting ideas are more important to us than the life of a woman. And that’s just not okay anymore.