Can An Artist Be Cancelled Without Cancelling The Art?
“What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? 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. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it travelled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.” (Farrow, 2014) These are the words written by a victim of sexual abuse Dylan Farrow who was allegedly abused by her adoptive father Woody Allen. There was no trigger warning statement before this quote for the reader of this essay. However, it could be speculated that what Dylan Farrow experienced is worse than reading her statement in which she is telling her story. That is why it is the least the reader can do to listen to her and try to help with her cause because there was no warning for her either before the things she had to go through. It may be asserted that the reason people want to be warned before they read -or see, listen- something awful is the same reason there are still victims who are abused or harmed in some way but cannot receive help. It is because humankind is ignorant of other people’s pain and only want to hear something happy. If what one person got to say is not something that will amuse the listener, that person will probably have a hard time trying to get them to listen. Voices of victims like Dylan Farrow are not heard because people are ignorant. People do not want to believe the famous artists may have done such horrible things because they were grown with their movies, songs and other products of “art”. One argument that is used as a reason to not give up the “art piece” created by a “horrible” person is that art and artist can be separated, so one can enjoy the art without approving what the artist has done in their “private” lives. Contradictory to such an argument, throughout this flow of thoughts, it will be argued that cancelling an artist is possible only if the art is cancelled along with the artist, and potential reasons will be presented to show why this is the case, where the term “cancelling” will be used as “stopping the consumption of a person or product”.
In the attempt to look at the arguable topic of cancelling artists from an academic point of view, help will be sought from the literary criticism movements. Firstly, one could start with the movements that are on the side that supports the separation of art and artist therefore it is not required to cancel the art along with the artist that has done “bad“ things. One of these movements is New Criticism. It was an early 1900s movement which advocates that a work of art has its own “intrinsic” value and everything that is needed to analyse it is already located on itself, no extra information is needed. Thus, the artist’s background, the time it was produced by the artist are not relevant to the analysis (New Criticism, 2021). Moving from this, it could be said that as an art piece is standing on its own, its artist’s misbehaviours do not harm the art itself. That is why there is no need to cancel the art with its artist. However, it is a relatively “old” way of thinking in terms of its dominance as a theoretical model which is not largely in use nowadays (Lumen Learning & Ivy Tech Community College, 2021). As a result, it does not help to solve the debate question.
Another criticism movement that supports leaving the art outside cancelling is Postmodernism; specifically Roland Barthes and his “The Death of the Author”. In his 1967 essay, Barthes claims that once a book is written and presented to the readers, the author of that book is dead in terms of his/her effect on the book. From that point on, the reader is born. So, he/she may never impact the literary value or interpretation of that art piece (Seymour, 2018). That means once some art piece is read — or watched, listened, seen,…- it does not matter if the artist has done something terrible in his/her life because he/she is already “dead” in the eyes of the “consumer” of that art which means that they have no authority over their art and the audience of that art piece is “born”. However, many literary critics in today’s world are disagreeing with this theory. One of them being John Farrell, as he states in his book “The Varieties of Authorial Intention”; “However difficult it may be to discover what the author intended, his intentions do provide a stable object for interpretation, and interpretations that do not accommodate that intention cannot be correct,” (Farrell, 2018). Thus, it could be said that one needs to consider the artist and his/her intentions while analysing an art product, since without them it is not possible to fully comprehend the meaning of the art. For that reason, “The Death of the Author” fails to win the argument against the side of cancelling the art along with the artist.
Barthes’ theory is also not the newest in literary criticism; therefore, it lacks the intellectual progress that has been undergoing for decades. One of the newest movements is New Historicism which may be claimed to include the intellectual progress that older theories lack as it has risen in the academic world in the late 20th century. It argues that one needs to know the cultural, political, and social context of the time an art piece was produced. The extra information along with the art itself includes the artist’s history too. It also acknowledges that it is not possible to interpret the history and therefore its possible impact on the art objectively (Lab, 2021). That is why a critic -or also the “consumer” of art- always analyse the final product of an artist subjectively to an extent as the history of the critic affect the analysis as well. That means “the consumer” cannot see an artistic product without the ideas they have in their minds. The person cannot look the same way they used to at Woody Allen’s or Michael Jackson’ work once they are aware of their past actions. Or it may impact the view of a certain product positively. If one grew up reading J. K. Rowling’s books or watching the movies based on her books, it is not so possible to look at her comments on the transgender community objectively. They might tend to see her as more innocent than another person who has not consumed her works. Thus, it is relatively safe to say, the ideas of the New Historicism movement make sense not only in theory but also in practice; which leads to the conclusion of it is not possible to separate art from the artist. So, it could be stated that if the artist were to be cancelled because of his/her actions, the art have to be cancelled as well.
So far, the arguments from the theoretical perspective were presented. However, there are also some more practical reasons for the idea of also cancelling the art of the artist. The first of them is the most obvious of all which is the financial profit that will be gained from art. When the artistic works of a “horrible” person are not cancelled and continue to be consumed, it directly puts money into the pocket of that “horrible” person called “artist”. That way, they continue to live luxurious lives and get away with their actions. Michael Jackson has built the multi-million-dollar value Neverland with the fortune he made from his musical career. It had an amusement park along with a train station, a cinema, a zoo, a swimming pool, a basketball court, a tennis court (Neverland, 2020). He attracted children with them and “allegedly” abused many children there (Lee, 2019). Many artists who have done “awful” things managed to get away with their crimes because of the money they have. They can get the “best” lawyer for their case, bribe the officer of the court, manage to silence the victims by giving them money, which in some cases, the victims desperately need. There are many known legal settlements reaching millions of dollars in exchange for the silence of the accusers along with the ones that are not known by the public, which will not be discussed in detail in this writing. It also does not matter if the artist is alive or dead. The money that continues to flow into the pockets of the family members helps them to “clear” the artist’s name after the artist died. Again, in Michael Jackson’s case, some accusations came after he died and the family members tried to prove he is “innocent” of such accusations on behalf of him (Tsıoulcas, 2019). Therefore, one should not continue to consume the “art” that has been produced by “bad” people to not let them make the system work for their benefit.
Another practical reason is less obvious than the financial gain, it is the social gain of the artists. What is meant by the social gain is that the artists become very famous and powerful because of their art. That lets them feel like they can do whatever they want and get away with it. It can be made clear with a statement from former USA President Donald Trump. In a video recorded in 2005 between Donald Trump and Billy Bush, the former president is saying the following words, “…And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the p***y. You can do anything.” (Paquette, 2016) Although Donald Trump is not an “artist”, he has been a very known and controversial figure for the media world, resulting in him becoming the president. That is why, it helps to understand the way of thinking that famous and powerful people like him, including other artists, have on their minds. Another case is movie director Bryan Singer. He is accused of raping a young man who was 17 at the time. His accuser Cesar Sanchez-Guzman states that Bryan Singer has threatened him, “He smirked and said, if I say anything, he was very popular and could basically ruin my reputation,” (Garcia-Roberts, 2017) Sanchez-Guzman is only one example of the sexual assault victims who were scared to go to the police or tell their stories to the reporters. All this fear is caused by the power and fame, the sexual predators have. Unfortunately, in most cases, the predators turn out to be not wrong because they can get away easily with their crimes and the harm they caused to the victims. However, that is exactly what needs to be changed. If the art is not cancelled along with the artist, he/she will still have the power and fame caused by their art, and they will live their lives as if nothing happened.
Lastly, what exactly happens if the art of a “horrible” artist is not cancelled will be presented. R. Kelly is a “perfect” example. Rolling Stone reports that after the week R. Kelly was found guilty of the allegations by the court; his music streams increased by %22, album sales by 517% and video streams by 23% compared to the figures of the week before (Blake, 2021). It means that his conviction even put more money into his pocket and created more fame, rather than “destroying” his image in the public. It could be said that the figures before the allegations were even higher, so that could mean he is “damaged” by the allegations. However, it is nothing compared to the harm he caused to the victims. Thus, it is not enough for him to lose “a few” listeners. He is not really punished for what he did and if somehow, he gets out of jail, he will be able to live a happy and luxurious life once again, while the victims will have to live with the damage he caused to them. Also, the motivation for cancelling the art may be made even clear with the words of Rebecca Corry who accused Louis C. K. of sexual misconduct, “We deserve to do our art without having to deal with this s**t.” while referring to the sexual harassment they were subjected to (Dancyger, 2018). Protecting the criminals or their art because of the “value” they have, causes the way to get blocked for many people who are equally or more talented and have more decent human values than the “predators”. The way needs to be cleared for them whose only desire is to produce their art in a safe workspace, by cancelling the criminals from the art world.
At the end of the discussion, the question comes down to “Is humankind ready to sacrifice ‘some people’ to not lose the ‘great artistic masterminds’?” Is this what society wants for future generations? Will the civilizations continue to progress at the expense of the victims of the people that are assigned to lead the artistic progress like the pyramids were built on the back of the slave workers? Will the victims like Dylan Farrow will be sacrificed to “the gods of art” like Woody Allen just to keep them “blessing” the society with their “incomprehensible talent” because they — “the gods”- are so talented and not replaceable, but the victims like Dylan Farrow can easily be replaced with new victims? If that is the case, can one really say humankind has very much improved itself as nothing much has changed in terms of “humanity” for centuries when the people are still turning the blind eye to the crimes of the artists? If that cannot be said, not cancelling them cannot be excused with the reason of “intellectual progression” since it is relatively “obvious” that humankind has not and will not be able to progress by tolerating such actions. So, it could be claimed that the “not cancelling policy” has not been successful. Thus, cancelling the artist who has done “terrible” things in his/her life could be considered. At least, the criminals would be punished as they deserve and even only this is progress in itself. Taking both the arguments from the theoretical and practical sides into account, it is clear that it is not possible to separate the art from the artist. In theory, because the history of the artist -and also the consumer- affects the value and meaning of the artistic product. In practice, consuming an art piece created by a “criminal” helps the artist financially and socially. That is why it is needed to cancel the art along with the artist. Without cancelling the art, the process of “artistic progress”, cannot be fully completed.
Blake, E. (2021, October 8). R. Kelly’s Sales Soared 500 Percent After Guilty Verdicts. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/r-kellys-sales-streams-guilty-verdict-1239159/
Dancyger, L. (2018, October 23). Louis C.K. Accuser Responds to Sarah Silverman’s Comments. Rolling Stone. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/louis-c-k-accuser-sarah-silverman-response-746217/
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