With the advent of the #MeToo movement, it became clear very quickly that we’d have some reckoning to do within ourselves. In fall 2017, there was a period when the guillotine really came down, casting several prominent actors, comedians, musicians, politicians, and athletes into the darkness of private life without an audience. We’ve still yet to hear from many of these people a few years on. The movement invoked the question of whether or not we could or should separate the art from the artist.
To erase the art entirely is a slippery slope, and we take that step at our peril. The artists themselves may be highly flawed individuals, but what of their art? The question was posed, and often the answer was to wipe the content from our sight indefinitely. While effective in the short-term, that isn’t the answer in the long-term. Though a liberal myself, I’m wary of the far-reaching tendency of progressives toward eliminating anything intellectually cumbersome or confounding in the light of new developments. While the art shouldn’t be promoted, it also shouldn’t be scrubbed entirely. Any and all of this art is the effort of a great many, not just the artists themselves. Teams of people put their heart and soul into a project. But this is not the crux of my argument.
I’ve long felt that we gain nothing by pretending things don’t exist. Some things don’t deserve to be celebrated or revered, of that there can be no doubt. Confederate statues shouldn’t have been erected in the first place, and so they should be taken down. I take no issue with the tearing down of false idols and monuments. It’s been a long time coming, and those holding onto that part of our nation’s shameful heritage have got to reconcile those ideologies within themselves, assessing just what they’re trying to preserve. But in the case of art, movies, television, music, and comedy, you cannot take away what it means to the people it’s affected. That may well be the case, but what are we to do when someone like R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, or Michael Jackson’s public reputation is irrevocably tarnished? Surely, we cannot ask everyone who loved the art to stop doing so.
Actually, we don’t need to do anything of the sort. We’re not losing anything. The art remains, and in fact, it gains a new layer. Granted, this layer is not a positive one, but the art survives: rusted and befouled, living on nevertheless. When a lifelong R. Kelly fan listens to his music now, they do so with the new knowledge of his transgressions. The music isn’t gone, but it’s changed, as it should be. Fans are forced to hear the music through new ears, see the art through new eyes — eyes and ears that know the grim truth. R. Kelly’s music is forever tainted by his crimes, Kevin Spacey’s movies become hard to watch knowing what he’s done.
To me, eliminating the art entirely misses the push for justice. To cast the art aside causes the transgressors to be forgotten, swept into the rubbish bin of history. That’s too easy, too simple, and it’s damn near impossible. These people used their power to take advantage of others, mainly men taking advantage of women. They deserve their infamy, and the art becomes forever stained. You can watch American Beauty, but you’re certainly going to be even more creeped than before out by Kevin Spacey’s character’s fixation on a young girl in the film. It’s all very real, but we can’t just put it out of sight, out of mind. We can’t dwell on it, but we need to remember these people for what they are and were. The art must live on, forever sullied, but living on nevertheless. The people who don’t wish to see or hear the art again can cast it aside, but erasing things from our culture is a dangerous step in a direction I don’t believe we really wish to take.
With all the cultural revelations we’ve seen as a result of the #MeToo movement over the past several years, we’ve seen a dramatic period of overcorrection, shaming even. The shame is warranted and the overcorrection understandable. Cooler heads, however, must prevail. Let the art live on damaged and forever marred. That is the punishment: living on in infamy. If the question is whether we can separate the art from the artist, the answer is a resounding “no.” Let the art gather that layer of dark history — a layer that cannot be scrubbed. The artist’s history factors heavily into their work, and so, the work is besmirched. Let the art live on as badge of shame. I cannot abide a culture so willing to erase things from history. It’s the right reasoning, but the wrong solution. The punishment can’t be eschewing the art altogether, letting the transgressions fade into the past along with the person. We learn nothing from forgetting everything.