Should we consume art without politics?
content warning: mentions of sexual assault, homophobia and gendered violence
Their art is irrevocably enticing. You connect with it on a spiritual level. Yet, when ‘Problematique’ is the artist’s middle name, enjoyment becomes a political battleground.
I remember the first time I ever read an Enid Blyton book. She opened up a whole new fantastical world of outlandish creatures for me to explore. Her stories were my ultimate escape, to the point where I felt that the Faraway Tree was my home and Silky the fairy and Moon-face were my true friends.
Suddenly, one fateful day, the Blyton bubble burst. The woman who I had envisioned to be a rosy-cheeked maternal figure, my idol, was exposed as a nightmarish mother and an adulterer, according to the headlines of 2009. I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t. It wasn’t until Blyton’s own daughter, and then her granddaughter, confirmed the facts, that I knew it had to be true. The woman who had inspired my vivid imagination and introduced an abundance of light to children’s bedtimes hadn’t had one maternal bone in her body. Despite the illusion being shattered, somehow, I couldn’t let it taint her stories. They had been such a colossal part of my upbringing, and felt separate to the person Blyton had realistically been.
This complex isn’t so uncommon. Most of us have grappled between an artist’s sketchy identity and their brilliant art; where do we draw the line between condemning someone’s controversial actions, and enjoying their work? It’s easy to argue that loving Chris Brown’s music isn’t the same as condoning his history of violence towards women - or is it? Can one argue the same with XXXTentacion’s music and his violent homophobia? Can supporting the art of convicted felons be equated to supporting the crimes themselves? When does art stop being just art, and start meaning something more? Was it ever just art in the first place? Does supporting an artist align you with their actions?
Some find it easy to separate personal controversy from an artist’s work. Others gasp in horror when they find out you enjoy the art of the problematic. Their perspectives instantly switch to a black-and-white lens, automatically associating you with the artist’s deplorable actions, as if your support of the artist is synonymous with support of all the ideological views that make up their very being. While this may not be true, it is undeniable that the financial support of their art enables the continuation of their accolades, influence and status.
Your money undoubtedly lined the pockets of Harvey Weinstein when you saw Ella Enchanted with your mum in 2004, or Vampire Academy with your high-school crush in 2014. Does this make you think twice about the art you consume? In consuming these, are you validating not only the art, but the creator’s very being?
When economic support acts as the saviour of sullied reputations, one can infer that knowing who the artist is transcends the significance of the meaning of the art itself. Every ticket sale, every review, and every award furthers the exposure of these maestros, building up a stage brick by brick until it’s high enough to be seen worldwide. That stage comes with lights that flash between the gaps of the masses, who are swaying to the symphony vibrating through the speakers, controlled by the press of a button on a mixing console. This stage is about projection; a carefully-curated amplification of the voices that the conductor wants to be heard. When you have the luxury to get lost in the trance, you are in a position of privilege.
But in a society riddled with the problematic, where does the guilt begin and end? There are other figures in the limelight who have had their share of scandal, yet don’t make you want to put up your pitchforks when you find out that your friends support them. These are artists like Joni Mitchell or Shailene Woodley, who have been criticised for distancing themselves from the man-hating label of feminism. Despite many disagreeing with these statements, most wouldn’t even raise a brow if Ms Mitchell’s music started playing at a party. Similarly, Ms Woodley’s disassociation from the feminist movement hasn’t stopped people from watching her latest flicks at the cinema. In fact, anti-feminist sentiments aren’t commonly reflected in their work - and perhaps that’s why they’re easier to stomach.
Yet, it seems almost impossible to separate the artist from their art when the art closely mirrors reality. Woody Allen, for instance, has been accused of childhood sexual assault by adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow.
Simultaneously, the fetishisation of older men grooming younger women is evident in his films. It would be an interesting dichotomy if his real-life exploits were detached from his art, when the former so often bleeds into the latter - especially within the climate of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. Magic in the Moonlight (2014), for example, featured a 25-year-old Emma Stone playing 53-year-old Colin Firth’s love interest. This one isn’t so objectionable, given that two consenting adults are involved, however, this hasn’t always been the case. Oscar-winning Manhattan (1979) depicted a 42-year-old Allen romantically paired with a 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway. Furthermore, the planned A Rainy Day in New York romanticises statutory rape through featuring an explicit sex scene between an adult man and a 15-year-old girl. Due to Ms Farrow’s allegations, this film may never premier, which exemplifies the fact that in this case, there really is no dividing the filmmaker’s actions from his craft - particularly because the craft felt direct repercussions from his actions.
Yet, to me, shock registered at the outpour of hate towards Debby Ryan for her role in Netflix’s Insatiable (2018). It’s no secret that human perspectives differ often, and that the online microphone only emphasises the voices of the irrational and narrow-minded. While the show reflects destructive themes surrounding body image and extreme acts of revenge-fuelled violence, it struck me as odd that the lead actress took the greatest hit. Ms Ryan stated that she felt Insatiable confronted issues surrounding fat-phobia and bullying in a satirical manner, and aligned with her own personal struggles towards her body-image. Even considering the show’s controversial message, however, it seems incongruent that the script writers and producers, the ones who have the most control of the storyline, were exempt from criticism. This makes one wonder - was Ms Ryan’s receiving of online hate because the audience blamed her for the destructive message, or simply because she was the most popular and visible star of the show?
Should an actor always be positioned as adjacent to the overall message of their art?
In January 2018, Selena Gomez was heavily criticised for her involvement in Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York, alongside cast members including Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Hall - Mr Chalamet and Ms Hall later revealed that they will donate all earnings from the movie to the Time’s Up movement, yet Ms Gomez, a notorious champion of women’s rights, has declined to directly respond. Ms Gomez stated: “To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer - not because I’m trying to back away from it. [The Weinstein allegations] actually happened right after I had started [on the movie]. They popped up in the midst of it. And that’s something, yes, I had to face and discuss. I stepped back and thought, ‘Wow, the universe works in interesting ways.’”
About the #MeToo movement, she then went on to say: “I feel all of those things. I’ve cried. But I’ve definitely feel hopeful. As people speak out, I hope that feels powerful to them, because they deserve to feel that.”
Is Ms Gomez at fault, when Allen is yet to be convicted, and still has the ability to make movies in the first place? Why are actors held to different standards than directors and producers? Where does the responsibility lie?
Whether you’re enticed by their art or they’ve been your idol since you were a kid, perhaps it’s the severity of an artist’s actions that allows one to judge where to draw the line. I couldn’t bring myself to boycott Enid Blyton’s books when her worst crime was not being maternal enough. Yet, when you throw in the likes of racism, sexual abuse, homophobia, misogyny or violence, that’s usually where prolific fans falter. It’s always difficult to reconcile with the cold, hard and ugly truth that our cultural icons aren’t always the people we envisioned. These figures, anything but perfect, often inspire strong emotional attachments from fans that transcend logic. And beyond the artist, is the art itself. In our postmodern society, once something has been created for the world to consume, it no longer belongs to the artist. Whether this means art should be valued in isolation, in spite of the inevitable support directed towards the artist, is for you to decide. Each and every individual will always possess their own distinct perception on the issue.
Specialist support is available by calling the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), or Twenty10 on (02) 8594 9550. UTS also has support resources available on-campus. For more information, click here.
Fatima Olumee is a second-year Journalism student. Besides being an absolute bookworm and obsessed Potterhead (not to be confused with Pothead), her passions include yoga, horse-riding, and Bollywood movies. This girl is a big bag of weird… the good kind, she hopes.
This article appeared in The Comma’s 2018 Annual Edition. Read more here.