The Complexities of Supporting Art by Problematic Artists

Can you separate art from the artist?

[Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and victim blaming]

By Jessica Huynh, Storyteller for RU Student Life

The other day, my friend sent me An Open Letter from Dylan Farrow. After reading the piece, I found myself haunted by it. Farrow wrote the letter addressing Woody Allen, her adoptive father and the man she maintains sexually assaulted her as a child. She begins the letter by innocently but deliberately asking the reader, “What’s your favourite Woody Allen movie?” Without missing a beat, she continues,

Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me.

In those few but graphic words, I thought about what it must feel like to be in Dylan’s shoes. What would it feel like to have your perpetrator and his art celebrated?

What stood out to me wasn’t the allegation itself (I was already familiar with Woody Allen being a class-A creep), but the confrontational approach Dylan took in her writing. Her courageous, unwavering truth confronts the reader with antagonizing parallels. She provokes the reader with her words, daring them to arrive at the same conclusion: the director they admire is the same director that sexually assaulted a child.

But this article isn’t about Woody Allen.

At least, not specifically.

This is about something much bigger. This is about artists and celebrities — and I say “artists” in the broadest sense— who use their position of wealth, power, and influence to overshadow their more questionable and inexcusable behaviours. This article isn’t about Woody Allen; it’s about people like him who continue to have a platform in spite of undeniable allegations.

This is about the complexities that come with supporting art created by problematic artists. This is about whose voices are heard, whose voices are silenced, and whose voices matter. This is about pointing fingers at people who point out problems (as Sara Ahmed describes), instead of looking at the blood on their own hands. This is first and foremost about privilege

For someone to come up to me and say, “I don’t agree with Chris Brown beating Rihanna, but I’ll still support his music,” usually (but not always) tells me a lot about someone’s personal history and attitude towards domestic violence. When you support art created by problematic artists, you provide a platform for these artists to thrive. Your support sends the message that inexcusable actions can be excused if you can create “good enough” content.

You convey to sexual assault survivors that your enjoyment of Woody Allen films is more important than the validity of survivors. You tell partners in abusive relationships that giving Chris Brown a platform to continue making music is more important than sending the message that domestic violence is never okay.

Whether or not you’re conscious of it, your support of art always supports the artist in question. I would even go as far as to say that if you have the luxury of being able to separate the two, you’re probably in a position of privilege.

As Dylan Farrow implied in her letter, Woody Allen films aren’t some intangible concept where liking the film can co-exist melodically with the disapproval of Allen himself. To someone like Farrow, hearing someone express love for Woody Allen’s films is just as heartbreaking as hearing someone express love for Woody Allen himself. There is little to no difference.

Now, I’m not saying you should boycott every little thing that is slightly problematic. We are all byproducts of our society and our society — frankly — is problematic. The reality is many celebrated artists in history were problematic people. You only have to read this expansive list of men who made great music but were not always great people to realize that problematic artists don’t exist in isolation. Does this mean you should boycott all music created by these artists because you don’t agree with their personal lives?

I can’t answer that for you.

Personally, I know I won’t be able to veto everything that’s problematic in media (or created by problematic individuals)… nor can I as a woman of colour. If I did, there would literally be a handful of music, shows, and films I could consume without getting upset… which is both disappointing and true.

You’re not a bad person for finding appealing and redeeming qualities in art created by questionable artists, so long as you acknowledge and take ownership of what your support contributes to. You can continue separating art from the artist as long as you validate those that don’t have the privilege of doing the same. Not every woman of colour will find enjoyment in shows like HBO’s Girls and Sex and the City and not every sexual assault survivor will be okay watching a film by Woody Allen. The issue isn’t black or white.

We can’t help what out ears like or what our eyes like to watch, but we can be conscious of what our actions imply. We have to think twice about elevating artists and excusing their behaviour simply because we enjoy their work. We have to rethink the ways we consume art we’re unsure about and minimize the ways we directly fund problematic artists.

You have a bigger voice in society than you think, and it’s your duty to be a vigilant consumer. Are you contributing to a society that values the output of art over moral integrity? Should there be repercussion for shitty behaviour, and if so, what does that look like?

Personally, I don’t believe art can be completely isolated and removed from the artist. Art embodies cultural footprints and implicit connotations that can either enrich or diminish its value. What might just be art to one person is a can of worms to another.

Just because you can separate a piece of art from the artist doesn’t mean everybody else can.