I was browsing the Internet, following one of my favorite essayists the other day, and noticed something off: he hadn’t published anything for around a year. Curious, I stumbled more around the Internet to see what news (or gossip) I could find about this not-so-well-known writer, and why he stopped.
I discovered that he was one of the men first outed in the #MeToo movement as a “shitty media man,” whose acts of alleged misconduct included rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and retribution against other writers. I went on to see that a litany of women accused him of not only abusing his role as an editor at a prestigious media organization but also treating the people around him with a base level of immense disrespect. In nearly every regard, the essayist I respected and revered so was a flat-out asshole.
At the time, this crushed me. It wasn’t that the expectations I had of the writer were shattered — after all, the person always differs from their line of work. Some of my favorite athletes have done awful things in their personal lives, ranging from domestic violence to multiple DWIs. It never is comforting to know that high-profile figures we admire can be so imperfect, after all, it is a painful reminder that they, too, are human.
But this was a writer whose work got me to change the way I thought, whose essays I started to model myself after to improve my writing, whose personal testimonies of addiction and anxiety hit extremely close to home. I started to have an internal battle over whether I could still enjoy the writing and the art, and even revere it, without enabling the dehumanizing actions of the person. That started me on a cascade to realize that, yes, I can still love the writing, but not support the person behind it. This is someone I felt like I really knew and connected with through writing, so it almost felt like finding out a friend, and a good friend, had really done something terrible.
I separate the artist from the art not because it’s the best decision, but because I feel like I have to. For someone who believes in giving people the benefit of the doubt, who believes that there aren’t bad people in the world (only people who do terrible things), this was the path I had to take to align my belief system.
For me to condemn any artist or celebrity is an act of sanctimonious hypocrisy — how would I look, to the general public, if my whole life and every terrible thing I’ve ever done were broadcasted to the public? How can I think I’m better than any of these people when I spent so much time glorifying them? Is it wrong that I had this illusion of perfection, or that society in general had this misconception? And is it unfair to public figures to hold them to such a high, unrealistic, God-like standard in the first place?
This isn’t to say that we as a society, country, and national community shouldn’t seek justice and hold people accountable for their actions. We absolutely should.
Can we separate Bill Cosby from Cliff Huxtable? Yes — one person is real, the other is not. The virtual character has been edited and altered to perfection, while the real one is not, far from it. Will “Manchester by the Sea” still be one of my favorite movies, despite allegations of sexual harassment against Casey Affleck? Yes. I like the movie for itself, not Casey Affleck.
The #MeToo movement and its aftermath made me realize this: I expected role models to be Gods, but they were just people. And people, no matter how good they are, can do terrible things. It also made me reassess why I chose athletes, writers, artists, or any other high-profile figure as role models. At first, it was because of what they did professionally, and how they inspired by how they played, wrote, or made music. Somewhere along the way, I started to see the professional art as a reflection on the person, imposing my own hypothetical values of the kinds of people they would be.
I was not only wrong to do so, but I was doing the art and the movements disservices in doing so, too.
The most influential person in getting me to separate the artist from the art was an English professor, who told me I had to stop taking a top-down view of poetry and art. He had a method of “inductive reasoning,” seeing things from the bottom-up. Too often, I would try to analyze a poem by looking at the poem’s historical context and the biography of the poet. I would go online and Google search what the poem meant to “experts” and other people, instead of just deciding what the poem meant to me, and what parts of the poem were important to me. My professor told me to stop rushing things and stop looking for things that aren’t there — and instead just spent time with the material and just let it come to me, instead.
In psychology, bottom-up processing refers to taking in sensory information, and having this stimulus influence our perception. In top-down processing, this is reversed — you use background knowledge to influence your perception. Top-down processing is faster, but more prone to mistakes, and extremely influenced by our expectations. Bottom-up processing goes into a situation knowing nothing but the stimulus.
It was taking this inductive reasoning, bottom-up approach that I was not only able to excel in the class, but get the most out of each poem, and be my own voice instead of using others’. It is an approach I’ve applied to other things as well — no longer do I take other people’s opinions about someone I don’t know to heart — I try to meet that person myself and make my own evaluation. Instead of taking someone’s word for why a movie or TV show is terrible, I want to make that evaluation for myself, too. The top-down method approaches each situation with a set of expectations and preconceived notions. By definition, viewing something top-down is a reduction at making something more shallow and fit to those expectations. A bottom-up approach goes in blind, with complete uncertainty.
As such, to view a piece of work through the deeds of the person is a form of top-down processing. To view the art as just that — the art — is bottom-up processing. For me, to read the Declaration of Independence as a document from a founding father and President is as much a reduction of the document as reading it as a document of the inhumane owner of hundreds of slaves.
I separate the person and the artist from the art because I don’t want to reduce anything. What if someone defended Harvey Weinstein from sexual assault allegations because “he made great movies”? That is the epitome of a reduction of the #MeToo movement, to not see a man facing charged for sexual assault as just that — a man charged with sexual assault. Then, is it not a reduction of the movement, too, to bring up the fact that an NYU professor suspended for sexual harassing a student is a prominent feminist scholar?
Of course, there are and absolutely should be exceptions. I’m not going to read “Mein Kampf” and ignore its author in the slightest. But I see the line as only being with those kinds of dangerous extremes — we can and should separate the artist from the art to not reduce the movement or the art.
Originally published at www.theodysseyonline.com on August 21, 2018.