There’s never a conversation about the misdeeds of an artist that doesn’t involve someone piping up to say that they separate the art and the artist, and they don’t want to know what the person did, because it doesn’t matter to their consumption of the art. Possibly it will come out that Wagner was a raging antisemite or similar. These things happen every time, and I’m frankly tired of it. The fact is, the artist is inseparable from the art, and saying otherwise is just a way to justify consuming the art anyway. I’d rather you just be honest and admit that, yeah, the art is more important to you.
The most obvious, of course, is the whole Woody Allen thing. You cannot separate Woody Allen, Creepy Sex Offender, from Woody Allen, Filmmaker. It’s obvious, because the art is filled with a Creepy Sex Offender sensibility. I don’t subscribe to auteur theory, but if I did, Woody Allen would be exhibit A. So every time a character in one of his movies leers at a woman half his age or younger, that’s Allen’s own behavioural traits on display. If you’re willing to put up with it in the movie, surely you must know that it’s in there because it’s who Woody Allen is. If it weren’t, those things wouldn’t be in there.
But okay, let’s take Wagner, since he will keep coming up in these conversations. And bear in mind, I don’t like Wagner’s music, particularly, so he’s on my “easy boycott” list. (Except “What’s Opera, Doc?” Which I believe fits under the “parody” allowance.) But, sure, let’s say you do like the music. Are you obligated to stop listening to it anyway, because Richard Wagner the man was a lousy person?
It may surprise you to know that I don’t think so. If Der Ring des Nibelungen is just your jam, by all means, continue listening. Go see a production of it, if that’s your thing. Your decisions about art are your choice, and I’m frankly judging the art more than the artist in this case anyway. But of course I also believe that everyone has the right to their own taste, and you shouldn’t judge people because theirs isn’t the same as yours.
The important issue here is that I believe you have to own it. Don’t tell me that you don’t consider the artist. Say, “Yeah, the artist was a terrible person who influenced the Nazis, and that’s vile. But I like the music.” Don’t just pretend you don’t know. Don’t deny it. Don’t go out of your way to say that the man’s personality doesn’t matter and shouldn’t have anything to do with the music. It does. It will. And you have to acknowledge it.
But it’s easy with Wagner, isn’t it? Because Wagner is dead. Whatever money you spend on tickets to see Lohengrin isn’t going to finance the man, who himself died six years before Hitler was born anyway. And in slightly more modern terms, you know, Picasso was a terrible person who died in my own lifetime. I grant you that I could not afford an original Picasso, but I could buy a book or something, which would benefit his estate but not him personally. So my money wouldn’t go to the man’s personal horrible abuse of women. Hell, I watch Klaus Kinski movies.
And, in still living people, I’ve known for some time that Harvey Weinstein was a terrible person. Maybe not the rush of specifics that have been coming out in these last few days, but it’s not exactly news that he wasn’t a great person to work for. And while he isn’t himself an artist, just a money man, that almost makes it worse—the Miramax and so forth movies in my collection enriched him, and they aren’t his art. And I chose to watch those movies, to buy copies of those movies, anyway. I made the choice, and I have to own the choice.
It’s a complicated issue. You have to make your own choices. There are a lot of factors you have to look at when you do—buying a copy of Chinatown probably won’t pay for any more rapes, but it’ll help enable Roman Polanski to live his life in exile while he evades justice. But Chinatown is still a brilliant movie. But it’s a brilliant movie where a woman’s mistreatment is part of a man’s character development. So do you watch it? Do you own it? Do you avoid it? How do you choose?
This is, I believe, the real ethical consumption. Not necessarily avoiding everything with something unpleasant involved in its making but knowing that you’ve made a choice. Knowing that you’re making compromises. Where you draw your line is up to you. But I believe it’s immoral to pretend there isn’t a line there to be drawn.
Of course, I’m a pretty nice person. Why not balance out that money you’ve given Roman Polanski or Bill Cosby with as little as a dollar a month toward my Patreon?