June 21, 2020

Harvey Weinstein, Michael Jackson and So Many More: Should We Choose to Separate the Art from the Artist?

Harvey Weinstein, Michael Jackson and So Many More: Should We Choose to Separate the Art from the Artist?

A couple weeks ago, a friend and I were watching The King’s Speech. It’s really a great film – but as the credits rolled in, the positive feeling we received from the movie was largely soured as the words HARVEY WEINSTEIN began to fill the screen, replacing the film’s satisfying ending, with a renewed and overwhelming sense of discomfort and indignation.

Suddenly, the film’s message lost its power. The executive producer’s sinister history started to consume our conversation: Had one of us known he had played a part in the making of the film prior to watching it? What horrific crimes had he committed on women at this point in his life? Whose lives had he destroyed thus far?

Earlier this week, my brother told me that Danny Masterson, the actor who’d played Steven Hyde in That ‘70s Show, which we’d both enjoyed growing up, was recently accused of raping three women. I was shocked. In a matter of seconds, I knew I would never be able to watch the show in the same way again, constantly looking out for moments that might reveal to me the monster behind Hyde.

A question quickly arose. Should we still be watching these films, and financially supporting the monsters who helped to create them? Harvey Weinstein and Danny Masterson aren’t just rare, one-off situations – Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson, Chris Brown and R. Kelly are a few names amongst the many powerful men who chose to abuse their power and destroy the lives of innocent women and children.

Yet despite this, the financial success and fame of these artists continue, seemingly unscathed. Michael Jackson, who is still dubbed the “King of Pop” today, maintains his popularity – although some radio stations in Canada and New Zealand refuse to play his songs, he is still streamed 16-17 million times every week in the US. Despite his sentencing earlier this year, Harvey Weinstein still holds a 20% stake in the Weinstein corporation. His name has managed to hold its unwanted presence in some of our favourite films. That means, whenever you watch Inglorious Bastards, Lord of the Rings, Shakespeare in Love, She’s All That, Good Will Hunting, Scream, Paddington (the list really does go on and on and on), you are supporting Weinstein and creating revenues for his films, and you are literally putting money into his pocket.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/10/harvey-weinstein-sexual-assault-charge-los-angeles

Of course, this introduces a dilemma. Harvey Weinstein is a terrible person, who should never be exonerated for his actions, and yet, what about the work of the other talented actors and actresses, and production teams in these films? If we stop financially supporting Weinstein’s films, these people will also suffer. On the other hand, who within these groups knew about the sexual abuse, and chose to do nothing? Perhaps Weinstein could have been arrested earlier, had Quentin Tarantino chosen not to ignore the rumours surrounding Weinstein, as well as the producer’s own inappropriateness towards Tarantino’s then-girlfriend, Mira Sorvino. Additionally, maybe if Colin Firth had done more than express his sympathies to Sophie Dix, an actress sexually assaulted by the producer, Weinstein could have been prevented much earlier.

So, is it possible to separate the art from the artist? New Criticism arose in the early 20th century, believing that a commendable text is one that has the power to stand on its own. This means that when a person considers a piece of art, the work must speak to them at any moment in time, without considerable thought behind the context of the artist who created it. When applying New Criticism to this argument, we can understand that maybe it’s better to see a film or a song through our own interpretation, as opposed to through the artist’s eyes. After all, as Roland Barthes relayed in his 1967 essay Death of the Author, we should no longer be giving the artist power over us to create fixed meanings and interpretations.

While I was doing some research, I was shocked to find the enormous amount of support that Jackson still had retained from fans unable to accept the truth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKti-AjG2w4

Although I commend this argument, I simply can’t apply it to Weinstein, or Polanski, or most of the people I have mentioned above. After all, they are very much alive. And sadly, I personally don’t believe that you can make clear distinctions between the artists and their art. To me, there will always be something very dark underlying R. Kelly’s songs, “Bump n’ Grind” and “Ignition”. I’d also be uncomfortable watching films of Woody Allen that force me to be complicit with his acts of monstrosity. For example, his most recent film, A Rainy Day in New York, normalises statutory rape, depicting a sexual encounter between a middle-aged man and a teenager. In these cases, the artist has forever tainted his work, and chances are I’m never going to be listening or watching their songs or films, without an acknowledgement towards their insidious creators again.

Therefore, the question is not whether we should separate the artist from the art, but rather, how we can reconcile our own interpretations of these films or songs with the disgust for the monsters that were involved in their making. I grew up with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”; although he wasn’t my favourite artist, he was certainly high up in my personal ranking. And although I treasure the flashbacks of me and my brother singing along to him on our way to school, I doubt I’ll be rehashing the memory anytime soon, or ever for that matter. If we start to appreciate a piece of art solely for what it is, we are forcibly ignoring what happened behind its making, and choosing to be ignorant of contemporary issues that don’t seem to be going away. 1 in 3 women are sexually harassed in their workplace, and 70% don’t report it. Weinstein sexually assaulted more than 90 – I wonder how many women are out there, who never came forward.