Art and the Artist: Can We Like Anything After #MeToo?

(L) Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
 (TR) Dan Harmon, creator of Community(BR) Woody Allen, filmmaker, auteur
Early last year, before #MeToo broke, I woke up one day to see a distressing headline about one of my favorite artists, the self-proclaimed feminist and creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon.  In an open letter, his wife Kai Cole shared the painful details of their split, including his admission of multiple counts of both emotional and sexual infidelity throughout their marriage.

As Cole shares from Whedon's farewell letter to her:
     "When I was running ‘Buffy,’" [Whedon writes], "I was surrounded by beautiful, needy, aggressive young women. It felt like I had a disease, like something from a Greek myth. Suddenly I am a powerful producer and the world is laid out at my feet...I let myself love you. I stopped worrying about the contradiction. As a guilty man I knew the only way to hide was to act as though I were righteous. And as a husband, I wanted to be with you like we had been. I lived two lives."
While I was puzzling out my emotional reaction to this news, I was in the middle of a Season 7 Buffy rewatch.  Suddenly, almost every episode rang like a confession: especially scenes that I knew Joss had written or touched up.

The one-two punch of the first two S7 episodes, "Lessons" and "Beneath You," show just this dichotomy in action.  Whereas "Lessons" concludes with what might be the predator's mantra: "It's not about right.  It's not about wrong.  It's about power," the following episode, "Beneath You," ends with a remarkable Whedon-penned scene that rambles between laying the blame of sexual assault and accompanying guilt on God, on the soul, on the object of affection and finally concluding with the image of the vampire burning while embracing the cross and asking: "Can't we all just rest now, Buffy?"


The answer, of course, is no, no - there is no resting in this valley of tears.  And if you want to make amends, you have to do the work.  Joss Whedon's letter to his wife felt like Spike's rambling soliloquy in "Beneath You:" Joss had screwed up, Joss had admitted as much - wasn't being found out punishment enough?  Can't we all just rest now?

The Artist, The Art & The Audience

As powerful men have fallen these past few months, one of the questions that has resonated is whether we're allowed to like any of the art they created.  In one camp, we have the argument that the art is not the artist, and so we are free to enjoy the art and let the law deal with the man.  However, others feel - particularly when it comes to artists whose misconduct has been egregious (Cosby, Polanski, etc.) - that it is morally unethical to support any of their body of work, even in retrospect.


I would argue that no matter which camp you fall into, the questions we are actually trying to unravel are:
  1. What degree of the creator's moral (or immoral) DNA is entwined with the art itself; and
  2. What in the art are we, the audience, responding to...and is that worth preserving?
Influencing the Art

Different disciplines of art will naturally include more or less of the artist's DNA in it.  A novel, piece of fine art, or musical composition will arise largely from a single source, while the performative arts, such as theatre, TV and film are collaborative by nature.

Thus, while Joss Whedon was the creative force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was a whole host of other writers, producers, directors, and actors' input to help shape each season.  Joss' fingerprint is evident, but is not all.  For example, it's known that Marti Noxon took over as show runner for seasons six and seven of the show, while Joss was focused on developing Firefly.

The collaborative nature - and thus distancing or mitigating effect of one particular artist's influence on a project - is even more evident, for example, in Harvey Weinstein-produced Miramax films.  Largely the role of producer is as gatekeeper, not artistic auteur.  Hence, for a Miramax film such as Jane Austen's Emma, very little of Weinstein's personal predations will be immediately evident.

No obvious influence, except, of course, for telling every 90's girl that she better be blonde and teeny to be worth anything.

The Auteur Effect
 
In the cases of highly collaborative art, then, it may be easier to still enjoy the art itself, while still being critical of any downfalls.

But what about auteurs?  In these cases, the director is also the writer is also, often, the producer, beholden to no one but his own vision.  Comedians fall into this category, which is why revelations about Bill Cosby and Louis CK can come as such a shock.  In some ways, at least Louis CK was always upfront about his downfalls: much of his stand-up centered around masturbation.  Are we then surprised to discover he was telling the truth?  Bill Cosby's legacy is more pernicious: where was the evidence of the monster in the wholesome Cosby Show, or in any of his comedy routines?  The fact that he could be a "smiling, smiling damned villain" hurts.

For many, myself included, the overt, grossly sexualized material of Louis CK turned me off to his work before details about his personal life and sexual misconduct came out.  The loss of his comedy didn't affect me.  However, I find that the duplicity of Bill Cosby's conduct, as well as the horrific allegations of drugging and raping women, disgust me on such a personal level that I've even excised any reference to his stand up comedy from my conversation.  Others might have a different reaction: capable of still enjoying either comedian's work, safe in the knowledge that both men are undergoing punishment for their sexual misconduct and assault.

But what, then, are we to do with the predators still at large?  Who are still profiting from our dollars, while flaunting their criminal fetishes on the screen?  Which is to say:

What About Woody?


Although Woody Allen has never been officially condemned by a court of law, the auteur has repeatedly and consistently been accused of molesting his own daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was aged seven (content warning: video).  Further exploration into Allen's personal journals and movie notes, housed at the University of Princeton, reveals a man who unequivocally fetishizes sexual interactions with underage women (content warning: article).  Add onto this his public affair, and eventual marriage to adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and we have a pretty good idea of the man himself.

But does this same predatory predilection show up in Allen's artwork?  Well, yes.  Yes, it does.  From Manhattan (video above) through to his banal current material, such as To Rome, With Love (video below), we see this same fetishizing, either starring Allen directly or through one of his many on-screen doppelgängers. Which is to say:
     We don't have to look for the man behind the curtain.  He's getting away with it, and grinning in our face.


So much for answering our first question: how much of Woody Allen's moral DNA is mixed up with much of his work?  The answer: quite a bit.  His films celebrates his fetish, and even makes excuses for it, vindicating his behavior.

Since, famously, Allen has been working outside the traditional film industry - writing, directing, and  producing his own work (Allen releases one new film a year), the content of his stories reflects his single point of view, unmitigated by producers or financeers. 
     What is more, since Allen largely finances his films through ticket sales and residuals from his extensive body of work, his success is the result of our literally buying what he's selling.  Which begs the question: just what are we buying?
The Active Audience

Hamlet famously says that the purpose of art is to "hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature."  That is, the purpose of art is to help us look inside our own souls.  We are not merely passive consumers of art, hypnotized by glowing screens.  In many ways art is completed by the audience.  The Marquis de Sade's novel harms none but himself until someone else reads it.  Even the Bible is just a paperweight unless it's opened up.  However, one man may read the Marquis of Sade and be so disgusted that he turns to God; while we have ample evidence of people reading the Bible and putting it back unconvinced.
     Which is to say: the art and even the artist themselves are only two parts of the equation.  The third part is our own response to the art itself.

So, when we ask the question whether we can enjoy a piece of art anymore - particularly when we learn that the art was borne of a predatory artist - we are actually reevaluating our own part in the art itself.  We are reevaluating our relationship to both the art and the artist.  We are reevaluating our worldview to the world.  We are criticizing the art, rather than just consuming it.

Witness David Klion's excellent article at Jewish Currents, examining his own formation in "Unlearning Woody Allen." For Klion, the nebbish hero who talks down to women and thereby gains both the girl and a smug feeling of superiority is part of what he cherished about Allen's films.  As Klion writes:
     "Renouncing Woody Allen is painful for many of us not just because we enjoy his work, but because it feels like renouncing a part of ourselves. It also feels cheap, because there’s no point in renouncing him if we can’t also renounce the part of us that finds his characters relatable. We need to take a closer look at the films that taught us to be this way, and to consider what else they taught us."
Such critical thinking may lessen the pure enjoyment of a piece of art for a time, but may preserve the importance of the art as well.  After all, what's that about those who do not study their history being doomed to repeat it?  It's not enough that we wake up, culturally; it's equally important to shine a light on our darkness, rather than burying it further.

Money, Money

That does not mean, however, that we necessarily need to finance more of Woody Allen's work, or any other known or suspected abuser.  Some have suggested that all the royalties from Woody Allen's films should be rerouted to his victims, which sounds noble in theory but is dangerous in practice.  If Woody Allen's pockets are lined, it's because we lined them.  We liked something in his work, resonated for good or ill, and his success is because of our support.  It's important to own that fact.
     You get the art you pay for.
Copyright law is copyright law.  Intellectual property, even if that intellect is questionable, is still the property of the individual.  However, should Allen or any other abuser come into a court of law, it would be perfectly fine to order them to pay a certain amount to their victims as partial reparation - payments which would likely be culled from those same royalties.

However, I believe that when we wish a certain artist's profits to be given to someone other than the artist, what we're really looking for is a way to exonerate our own part in the artist's success.  If I know that I can see Allen's new film, and that my $15 won't go to line his pocket, perhaps I can enjoy the film without my conscience bothering me.  But that simply isn't the case.  As audience members we have to take responsibility for what we seek out and why; who we pay and whether we really want to consume what they're feeding us.

The Penitent Artist

In a rare turn, there has been at least one creator who - rather than cowardly ducking out of his marriage like Whedon, or glorying in his atrocities such as Allen - has actually confessed and apologized for his own actions.  This past January, writer Megan Ganz acccused Dan Harmon, the creator of the cult TV show, Community, of unwanted advances during their time working together.

In a pattern we've seen repeated among men with power, Harmon developed an unwelcome crush on one of his staff writers, Ganz.  When she continued to refuse him, chiding him for treating her differently, he began to punish her instead, ultimately leading to some psychological trauma for the writer.  In a public Twitter exchange this past January, Ganz called out Harmon to come clean about his own part, which he did in a lengthy apology on his podcast.

In a remarkable turn, Harmon specifically details every mistake he made, every poor decision, every terrible act.  He shines a light on his own darkness, and even offers this light to his listeners, concluding: 
     I want you to be the one to examine this and every step of the way decide for yourself where I’m making mistakes. I don’t want to explain to you what I’ve learned. I want you to look at this and I want it to sound relatively unremarkable to you, because that’s the danger... 
     I lied to myself the entire time about it. And I lost my job. I ruined my show. I betrayed the audience. I destroyed everything and I damaged her internal compass. And I moved on....
     I did it by not thinking about it and I got away with it by not thinking about it. And if she hadn’t mentioned something on Twitter, I would have continued to not have to not think about it...
     Because if you don’t think about it, you’re going to get away with not thinking about it and you can cause a lot of damage that is technically legal and hurts everybody.
That's Entertainment

So, can we enjoy anything now?  Yes, of course we can.  Although we may have to learn to enjoy things while also still thinking critically.

And we can even hope and pray for the artists who make work that troubles us, because while Woody Allen believes that "everything gets corrupted," it's also possible that - to paraphrase Dr. Who - this time, just this once, everybody gets saved.  However, it'll take more than a few nice words; more than slumping passively on a crucifix, asking if we can all rest now.  It's going to take picking up that cross -

And walking.

Comments

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