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I’m Sick of Separating the Art From the Artist

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | November 13, 2017 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | November 13, 2017 |

I’m two months into my Masters degree on film studies, and over eleven months deep into my career as a pop culture writer. Unavoidably, these areas intersect frequently, and my professional life has deeply influenced how I approach my return to academia. Every film I talk about in terms of its artistic merits quickly makes room for discussions of the business side of movie-making that the field often overlooks. While studying Sunset Boulevard, one of my all-time favourite films, I spent a little too long wondering how I’d approach Norma Desmond if she were the topic of one of my celebrity articles. As someone who has made pop culture an indelible part of her life, these past few months of thinking have placed me in a new frame of mind for how I approach the very thing that I’ve adored essentially since birth. It’s also reminded me of some disheartening necessities.

I don’t have to watch Woody Allen movies for my course, which I’m thankful for, nor has Roman Polanski reared his ugly head. The weeks we spent looking at Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo were around the same time Tippi Hedren went back on the record to detail the horrible behaviour inflicted upon her by the director, one I spent hours deliberating with classmates in mostly positive terms. Last week, when news reached us that Kevin Spacey would be removed entirely from Ridley Scott’s upcoming film, All The Money in the World, and replaced with Christopher Plummer, the usual points of discussion came up: How would this effect the film; what would happen to the original Spacey cut; would this make us more interested in the film or less; and so on. Inevitably, talk fell onto the artistic ethics of such a choice, something we could not find a precedent for. It didn’t take long for the elephant of ‘separating art from artist’ to enter the room.

Truthfully, this is an absolute necessity of my work and my studies. If I couldn’t distance the things I love and appreciate from the terrible people responsible for them, I would probably find it difficult to get up in the mornings. That does not mean that I overlook the problems or dismiss them outright, but I must have the tool in my arsenal that allows me to keep a few steps between the object and the subject. I’m not sure Roland Barthes was thinking hard about this element of our culture when he created the Death of the Author theory, but nonetheless, it’s what we have to work with, and it’s been an immense help for as long as I’ve been writing about things on the internet.

But I’m tired of it. I’m bereft of energy and emotional spirit and I’m sick of having to surround myself with poison and claim it’s okay because it has nothing to do with art.

We need new weapons in this battle against our ceaselessly complicit society. The old tools are broken, and we’ve little patience for them anyway, especially now in the time we shall forever refer to as the post-Weinstein age. Every day brings new revelations of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest, and for what feels like the first time, consequences are being raised. If only out of sheer embarrassment and a desire to protect the bottom line, the industry is finally making some much desired changes. For too long, the default mode of business has been to assume that personal problems will have no effect on the financial success of a product, and frankly, it still won’t put much of a dent in, say, franchise blockbusters or that elite percentage of review-proof musicians and authors.

One of the main problems with Death of the Author is the culpability it creates in audiences and industry figures alike. If the art is good enough then we insist it isn’t any of our business to know what the artist gets up to behind closed doors. Privacy is a crucial right but what happens when we keep returning to that defence and allow the bully to turn it into a shield? And what if that bullying is considered part of their charm? We may never shake ourselves of the poisonous fallacy of the difficult man who brings Oscar gold through his aggressively method performances or the tyrannical directors whose cruel and unusual methods are something to withstand to show your own toughness in a macho industry. Human suffering is collateral damage for good art, it always has been in the eyes of the industry and audiences, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. Hell, the pain of abuse seems to be a worthy sacrifice for shit art in this world as well.

People are afraid to lose the things they love. We take comfort and immense pride in our hobbies, and we’re indelibly moulded by the books we read, the movies we watch, the music we dance to, and the stories we’re eager to tell. When confronted with something like finding out the guy who made Chinatown is a rapist, we can’t help but wonder if our enjoyment of that film makes us bad people as a result. It gets personal when it shouldn’t, and when the culture encourages you to wholeheartedly invest your emotional and mental energy into the act of being a fan, making the separation becomes ever harder. Separating the fan from the person is its own curious debate.

I look at the people on my feed who are still having the ‘separate art from artist’ debate. Many are smart, eloquent and well-meaning in their discussions, able to parse the many complex layers of a constantly evolving issues. Others are glibber, eager to prioritise the quality of the art and how undeniably great it is even if the person who made it is a bad person. Bad people can make beautiful art but I question our desperation to put the art first in these discussions, especially given the current context they’re being made in. What does making this priority say about us? Why does our personal enjoyment of a movie matter more than an epidemic of abuse aided by an institution that hoped we’d make the decision to carry on regardless?

I hate the inevitability of these revelations, of that feeling that everyone is a creep just waiting to be exposed, and the accompanying lurch in my gut as I wonder if the celebrities I like are next. Selfishly, I’m dreading the possibility of having to go through the cycle of dealing with finding out an actor or director whose work I adore is the next Weinstein or Spacey. It’s the same routine every-time: The initial shock of the news, the following outrage on behalf of the accusers, then the internal battle over reconciling years of fan adoration with a smothering reality, and how much your own ignorance, willing or otherwise, played a part in exacerbating the central toxicity. Even now, more jaded and aware of the extent than ever, my instinct still urges me to make the excuses. It wouldn’t be that big a deal, right? I’m a total nobody with no influence on the world, who cares if I still like that musician or buy the DVDs of that director’s films? The distributor’s the bad guy, not the actors or director or crew, so surely that makes my financial choice okay? It’s just one person so why would that matter?

It does matter, and I can’t do it anymore. Even if the only person who knows about it is myself, I can’t deal with the exhaustion it creates, or the feeling of being complicit it breeds in my gut. I can’t give my money to these people anymore, however pitiful a sum it may be, and I can’t give them the oxygen of free, unchallenged publicity anymore, even if it’s for something as benign as a review. My drop in the pool may not matters but there are countless others going through the same quandary and that adds up to something that really can change the tide.

Sometimes the artist can’t and shouldn’t be separated from the art. Auteur theory is a thing, and there are plenty of schools of thought dedicated to exploring the inextricable relationship between creator and product. All of these means of criticism are valid, yet we prize Death of the Author above all others because it allows us to overlook the difficult questions and pretend all decisions are made in a vacuum. Besides, some art practically begs us to try and separate it from its artist, as we saw with the recent fallout from the New York Times investigation into Louis C.K. and basically everything Woody Allen’s done for the past couple of decades. For lack of a less unsettling term, some of them seem to get off on that discomfort, and half the time the work isn’t good enough to justify any of this hoop jumping. To paraphrase Jason Bailey, if the art is bad and so is the artist, what the hell is there left to talk about?

I can’t say that I’m done with separating art from artist, simply because I’m in a position that requires me to use the theory regularly. However, I am done with the old excuses and I’m done making those excuses for myself when I know I can do better. I care less about the art of abusers than I do the lost creativity and ingenuity of the victims who never got the chance to show it to the world because of a hostile culture that kept them quiet. The imbalance of power does not need me to tip the scales further with a turn as the devil’s advocate. There’s enough great art out there more deserving of my time.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.