So today, I want to talk about what our ethical duties are in relation to the consumption, promotion, and enjoyment of art. This post is by special request, but I think it’s an important topic, and a timely one. Though I haven’t seen it yet, and likely won’t, the debate over whether or not we can enjoy the works of obviously unethical artists has been reinvigorated by the documentary Leaving Neverland, an expose on the impacts of Michael Jackson’s sexual assaults on his victims and their families. Honestly, when I saw a couple articles about this in the news, my first reaction was, “Who the fuck didn’t already know that Michael Jackson raped kids?” Because, I have known this my whole life. Literally, the first accusation and out-of court settlement regarding his behaviour happened the year before I was born. This is not news. But I guess some people weren’t aware, and it’s a good question to ask what our responsibilities are once we do become aware. So, in this post I want to ask 2 questions:
-What, if any are our duties to be aware of the personal transgressions of artists whose work we enjoy?
-Once we might be aware of their transgressions, what are our duties towards consuming their art?
As I mentioned, the first question is awareness. In some cases, we may have to be willingly blind to be unaware of artists bad behaviour. This happens when such behaviour is widely publicized (take, for example, Woody Allen). As I have argued before, we have certain duties to acquire knowledge, and in the cases where that knowledge is widespread and easily accessible, I think our duties are stronger, so we should be aware.
However, what if such things are not as widely known, or if we come to enjoy the art after transgressions move on from the public sphere? I myself was forced to reckon with this in the case of Marion Zimmer Bradley. Marion Zimmer Bradley was the author of The Mists of Avalon, among other works, and this is a book which greatly influenced my own writing and reading for a long time. I enjoyed the movie adaptation when I was a child, and in general looked up to her as an example of a great female writer in a time when there were fewer. Then, I found out that she too, was a child sex abuser. I don’t think I could have reasonably been expected to know, or perhaps to even understand the gravity of this fact when I first discovered her work (I was a fan primarily between the ages of 7-14), and even if I hadn’t been a child and therefore, less of a moral agent to begin with, it does seem pretty onerous to require the average consumer to do extensive research on a creator before consuming their works.
On the other hand, with the advent of social media, connecting to creators and their wider circles has never been easier, so I do think it is important to be open to acknowledging the fact that any creator may be a bad person, and to understand that bad people can make “good” art (whatever that means).
I think the best way to ensure that consumers do not have access to bad creators’ work is to have the duty lie with the distributor of such work. I do think that in this day and age publishers and distributors of all stripes have a duty to investigate their artists for the sake of the public, and to de-platform individuals who commit morally reprehensible acts.
The second part of this problem is usually where people get hung up. As humans, we love what we love, and I do think there are parts of every person that are lovable, and these things often come out in art. Does morality really require that we deprive ourselves of things that bring us joy, that allow us to understand our humanity, that allow us to connect with one another, simply for the sake of denouncing someone who has done a bad thing?
Well, it’s complicated. As much as English Departments around the world might like to say, “the author is dead,” in many cases the author is not dead. Our capitalist system means that artists benefit greatly from consumer support, and while one wrong action does not mean that a person should suffer for the rest of their life, there are serious problems with the way that wealth enables someone to escape the consequences of their actions, which may act as a deterrent towards future bad behaviours. Especially with high-profile stars reducing their means to amass huge amounts of wealth is essential to seeing justice done and to protecting future potential victims, but this I think is a symptom of a larger problem. As far as what we can do as consumers, my advice is this: if you really must consume the art of someone who is morally reprehensible, do it in such a way that they can receive no financial benefit, and recommend that anyone you recommend or discuss the art with do the same. For example, whenever I want to read an Orson Scott Card novel (a noted homophobe who contributes large amounts of $$ to anti-gay organizations), I do my best to find a secondhand copy, since authors receive no benefit from the sale of secondhand books. If there’s a movie or album I simply must have from some bad actor, I pirate it.
Additionally, there is always the concern that in consuming art made by bad actors, we too, may become less virtuous if their personal philosophies come through in their art and may present their actions as acceptable- as is the case with Woody Allen’s Manhattan. When this is the case, we either need to be very aware of the context of the art and the artist’s transgressions, or abstain entirely. Personally, I go with the abstaining entirely, because I am disgusted by art which presents morally reprehensible acts as acceptable.
Finally, the last concern we should have in consuming the art of bad actors is that in some cases, by continuing to support their art, we are closing the door to artists who are equally as talented and who may be barred from the profession due to a toxic culture. This is the case with Louis C.K and comedy, where women became barred from the profession constructively because of his bad actions. This, I think is the most reprehensible consequence of our consumption of the art of bad actors, and this is when we absolutely must call for them to be de-platformed. Art is not a meritocracy, and there are so many beautiful amazing artists who cannot make a go of it because of systemic barriers or sheer bad luck. When the success of a bad actor prohibits the careers of these equally deserving (on artistic merit) folks, that cannot stand.
I cannot tell you what to watch, what to listen to, what to read, or what to love, anymore than I can tell you what to think. I understand the emotional ties we have to art, and the way it can feel to give up a part of your soul, to feel like a part of it is tarnished by the destruction of some ideal you might have about an artist you love. But I can tell you that you are strong, that you will find new things to love, that you have choice and agency and that you can choose your own path forward. I hope that path will be one of compassion. One where we center the voices and experiences of victims, and one where we promote their healing and prevent the creation of further wrongs.