The Complexities of Supporting Art by Problematic Artists

Can you really 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 and it had a profound effect on me. Dylan Farrow wrote the letter speaking to Woody Allen, her adoptive father and the man against whom she’s spoken out about sexual assault. She outlines the sexual assault he inflicted on her as a child and the traumatic effect it had on her throughout her life.

Dylan begins the letter by innocently, but deliberately asking the reader, “What’s your favorite 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.

And in those few but graphic words, I thought about what it must feel like to be in Dylan’s shoes: to have your perpetrator and his art celebrated. What really 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 to the same conclusion: that the director they love so much is the same director that sexually assaulted a child. I believe Dylan Farrow —

But this article isn’t about Woody Allen.

At least, not specifically.

This is about something much much bigger. This is about artists and celebrities — and I say “artist” in the broadest possible way — who use their position of wealth, power, and influence to overshadow their more questionable and inexcusable behaviour. No, this isn’t about Woody Allen; it’s about people like Woody Allen that continue to have a platform in light of undeniable allegations.

This is about the complexities that come with supporting art created by problematic artists. This is about whose voices are heard and whose voices are silenced. This about whose voice matters. 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

Being able to support art created by problematic artists is a slippery slope, but it is ultimately a privilege. For someone to 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 relationship 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 normally inexcusable actions are excused if you can create “good” enough art.

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 Chis Brown a platform to continue making music is more important than sending a message that domestic violence is never okay. You tell Asian actors and actresses that watching Scarlett Johansson play an Asian character is more important than capturing the true essence and authenticity of a Japanese-based story or encouraging actors of colour to pursue their craft.

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, your support of art always supports the artist in question.

You might not care or want to believe it, but that’s the truth. Maybe it’s not a big deal for you because you were never directly impacted. For a lot of people, they can separate art from the artist without feeling conflicted. I will argue these people are fortunate. They haven’t suffered at the hands of these artists or people like these artists, so why should they care? To someone like Dylan Farrow: hearing someone express love for Woody Allen’s films is equally as heartbreaking as hearing someone express love for Woody Allen himself. There is little to no difference. Remember that.

“But…buuuutt… what am I suppose to do? Just stop watching movies? Stop listening to music? Stop consuming art?!”

Well yes and no… The reality is: some of the most 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 solely because you don’t agree with their personal lives?

I can’t answer that for you. That’s for you to decide.

But if you have the luxury of being able to decide, you are already in a position of great 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. Similarly, as an Asian woman, I can’t support a film like Ghost in the Shell without thinking of how my approval contributes to a system that continues to whitewash roles that could be filled by Asian actresses instead. I can’t help but think about how films like this generate more opportunity for white women in the creative sector by shutting out women of colour. I can’t help but think about how this lack of representation affects me on a daily and personal basis. If you can separate art from the artist, please know that not everyone can.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying you should boycott each and every little thing that is slightly problematic. After all, we are all byproducts of our society and our society, frankly, is problematic. I know I won’t be able to veto everything that’s problematic or created by problematic individuals… nor can I as a women of colour. If I did, there would literally only be a handful of music, television shows, and films I could actually consume without getting upset… which is both disappointing but true.

I still enjoy Sex and the City and HBO’s Girls reruns even though I am fully aware it is not intersectional feminism. I still enjoy movies that have an all white cast, even though I know that’s leaving people of colour’s stories behind. Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. I don’t know, but I do know that some things can be problematic and be overlooked in the moment whereas some things feel outright wrong.

I think it’s okay to find appealing and redeeming qualities in art created by questionable artists, so long as you acknowledge and take ownership to what your support contributes to. You can continue separating art from the artist, so long as you validate those that don’t have the privilege of doing the same. Not every women of colour will be okay watching shows like Sex and the City and not every sexual assault survivor will be okay watching a film by Woody Allen. That’s perfectly acceptable.

You can’t help what your ears like or what your eyes like to watch, but you can make decisions for yourself. You can decide to be a passive consumer or you can decide to speak up. You always have a choice. You can be someone who stays silent or you can be someone that initiates open and honest discussions with friends, family, and peers… even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. I’m not afraid to say, “I like Sex and the City, but it’s problematic in these ways...”

We have to be conscientious of the way our words and actions reinforce and perpetuate questionable behaviour. We have to think twice about elevating artists and excusing their behaviour simply because we enjoy their art. We have to rethink the ways we consume art we’re unsure about, minimizing the ways we directly fund problematic artists to continue to have a platform. There has to be repercussion for shitty behaviour.

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 the consideration of moral integrity? Does this even matter to you?

I will argue that it does. If it didn’t, Canada, Australia, and the Great Britain wouldn’t have temporarily banned Chris Brown from entering the country in light of the domestic abuse charges against Rihanna.

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. Don’t forget that.