#MeToo Aesthetics & the “Should We Separate Artist From Artwork?” Debate
Here’s the first half of a conference paper. Second half to follow soon (I hope!).
Is it morally permissible–or even possible at all–to enjoy artworks by artists whose beliefs and actions are racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive? This is not a new question. However, as #MeToo activism has revealed cascades of famous and influential men to be serial sexual harassers and rapists, “what to do with the abusers whose art we like?” has received renewed interest and urgency. As of this mid-2018 writing, the New York Times has published at least three pieces on exactly this question in the last 10 months.
According to feminist media studies scholars Shelley Cobb and Tanya Horeck, after the New York Times published an account of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault and harassment in October 2017, “powerful men from a range of sectors, including the film, music, literary, media, sports, fashion, and food industries have been toppled one by one, as accounts of their predatory, abusive behaviour have emerged” (489).  They call this phenomenon the “Weinstein effect” (489). They observe that “though this feels like a watershed moment, it is important to proceed with caution and determination, and to not assume that the new visibility of feminist arguments about gendered inequality in the workplace will necessarily lead to the long-term structural changes so desperately needed” (490). Such caution is equally necessary in evaluating the effect of the “Weinstein effect” on the “should we separate the artist from the artwork?” questions.
In articles published since the Weinstein story broke, responses range from yes to no to both yes and no. I’m interested in the latter two kinds of response. The “no” responses argue that one’s feelings of disgust ruin artworks that one used to like, and the “yes and no” responses argue that even though one still likes the artwork, the creator’s behavior was so morally and politically disgusting that it is inappropriate to enjoy and support their work. Roxanne Gay comes down firmly on the “no” side. She argues that although Bill Cosby’s TV show (which was groundbreaking in its featuring of a black middle class family as the main characters in a sitcom) was deeply important to her and many other black children who watched it growing up, the fact that he is a serial rapist makes her unable to enjoy his work any longer. According to Gay, “Cosby’s artistic legacy is rendered meaningless in the face of the pain he caused. It has to be. He once created great art, and then he destroyed his great art. The responsibility for that destruction is his and his alone. We are free to lament it, but not at the expense of his victims.”  This is a simple zero-sum equation: pain cancels out pleasure. In Gay’s system of accounting, proper respect for the victims and their pain takes the place of our enjoyment of Cosby’s work. This zero-sum math is behind most “no” answers. For example, high school journalist Sofia Heller says that she “decided that I would not be able to watch [House of Cards]. I couldn’t separate the art from the artist because Frank Underwood [the main character] and Kevin Spacey [actor accused of sexual assault] were one and the same. His depravity transcended a fictional script.”  Similarly film critic David Erlich says “I do have trouble enjoying products made by monstrous men.”  In the “no” responses, the monstrosity of the actor eclipses the greatness of his (it’s usually a his) work. Claire Dederer explains this in a way that clarifies its difference from the “yes and no” answer. In “no” cases,
the awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t. We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art. Either way: disruption. They are monster geniuses. 
When moral and political disgust at the artist translates into aesthetic disgust at their work without remainder (there’s that zero-sum math again), then the answer is “no.” But as Dederer points out, moral and political disgust at the artist outweighs without necessarily voiding the aesthetic pleasure one gets from their work. Both things are true at once–monster and genius–though we are morally and politically obliged to weed out monsters from our cultural consumption. Ruby Phillips’s op-ed in The Daily Northwestern guides readers through this process:
When I am about to rewatch Eminem’s “8 Mile” or Spacey in “American Beauty” for the 60th time, I have to stop myself and reflect. I think about how many women’s careers have been ruined and how many women have had to give up their bodies, their dreams and their self respect just to indulge some man. I think about how many men have gotten away with it and continue to get away with it. Then if that doesn’t work, I think about the silence — the decades and decades of silence — and the fear that people continue to feel about coming forward and dismantling this complex system. And I remember that the small inconvenience of me not watching a good movie pales in comparison to that. 
In order to dissuade herself from experiencing an artwork that she enjoys, Phillips practices a kind of aversion therapy: when faced with a film she has liked in the past, she runs through a list of all the harm caused by its abusive star in an attempt to change her positive association with the film to a negative one. A.O. Scott’s New York Times piece on Woody Allen concludes with a similar suggestion: “I will not blame you if you want to stop watching Woody Allen’s movies. But I also think that some of us have to start all over again.”  The reason he needs to re-watch Allen’s films is to re-train his perception of Allen’s performances in them from pleasurable to monstrous. Guided by the imperative “I…have to choose between watching movies I enjoy or condemning predators,”  these “yes and no” takes rely on the same zero-sum math as the “no” responses–here, it is the moral and political ideal that one ought to achieve through aversion therapy. The non-zero-sum state of ambivalence is a flaw one must correct: disgust at sexual assailants must replace the pleasure one finds in their artworks. It’s a difficult if necessary “trade-off.” 
This zero-sum accounting of pleasure and disgust uses aesthetic judgment as a metric of gender justice. Feeling disgusted by sexual assault and harassment serves as evidence that you aren’t misogynist and that you aren’t complicit in the patriarchal harming of women. If “Many of these works make the consumer complicit in the perspective of the abuser,”  then feelings and expressions of disgust at these works indicates one’s refusal of such complicity. However, if this disgust sufficiently removes one from complicity, then patriarchal abuse must be something abusers bring with them to taint their otherwise acceptable work and not also something built into the structuring logics of artworks and aesthetic conventions. Such accounting begins from the assumption that “there are plenty of other good movies, ones that weren’t made by abusive men.”  But as scholars such as Laura Mulvey, Susan McClary, and Christina Sharpe have demonstrated, cinematic, musical, literary, photographic, and other Western artistic traditions are built upon the premise that depictions of women’s (especially black women’s) abuse are aesthetically pleasing. This is so sedimented into our artistic languages that even when the patriarchal abuse of women isn’t the explicit content of an artwork, such abuse lingers in the languages’ formal dimensions as “feminized” elements are subordinated to masculinized ones. It’s no wonder A.O. Scott found Woody Allen’s performances the apex of comedy: the languages of comedy and cinema are themselves patriarchal.  And this is the problem: everyone is complicit because the terms of aesthetic pleasure we’ve inherited from various Western artistic traditions are too. Even movies that weren’t made by abusive men normalize the subordination and abuse of women. Because patriarchy and misogyny are built into our aesthetic conventions, being disgusted by despicably-behaved artists isn’t enough: the very terms through which we feel aesthetic pleasure are unjust. THere is no un-complicit position on this issue. This is why Mulvey argued that feminists had an obligation to reject the aesthetic pleasures Hollywood cinema had to offer.
These “no” and “yes and no” responses make the quintessentially neoliberal move of making individuals responsible for reforming injustices that exist at the structural level (and thus intensifying those injustices rather than eliminating them). But they use a specific tool to do that. Christina Beltran has shown how neoliberal diversity or post-identity rhetorics use aesthetic judgment to replace and/or ground moral and political judgments. As Lester Spence, Shannon WInnubst, and other scholars who study the way neoliberalism changes white supremacy and patriarchy have observed, neoliberalism takes traditional logics of purity and exclusion and remakes them into practices of conditional and instrumental inclusion of otherwise elite members of historically underrepresented groups that accompany intensified exclusion of less elite members of these groups: “today’s public rhetoric affirms a universal commitment to equality by emphasizing our increasingly diverse body of elected and appointed representatives” (138). Perceptible diversity serves as evidence that traditional forms of exclusion have ended and that society is in fact equal and meritocratic. Beltran argues that we perceive diversity in a specific way, and that this (mis)perception is key to its ability to obscure ongoing and intensified oppression. “Racial diversity,” she explains, is “often experienced as a kind of beauty and a form of aesthetic pleasure. For many race-conscious citizens, descriptive representation has a kind of beauty that feels and looks like a form of justice” (Beltran 153). Perceived racial diversity–on, say, a conference panel or a syllabus–functions as palpable evidence of the fact of social justice. To judge that panel or syllabus as beautifully diverse, its composition must exhibit what I understand to be an appropriate level of diversity, much in the same way a beautiful artwork must be composed in a way that meets or exceeds my basic aesthetic criteria for it. Here, diversity is an aesthetic criterion, not a moral or political one because taste is the criterion, not justice. We know that it’s taste because our tastes are often wrong. What I think is appropriate representation may be something besides proportional or equal representation. Because patriarchy shapes our tastes, we often misperceive women’s lessened underrepresentation as overrepresentation. For example, listeners of “Stuff You Missed In History Class” podcast complained in 2016 that the show featured too many episodes about women. However, when the podcast producers tracked the number of episodes about women, they found that only 21% of them were about women.  Though women are at least half the population, people felt 21% tipped the scales distastefully far in women’s direction. They felt women’s continued but lessened political underrepresentation was actually an aesthetic overrepresentation. This is bad not only because it substitutes aesthetic judgment for political judgment, but also because aesthetic beauty serves to hide a moral and political lie: although some nonwhites have been granted access to elite positions and spaces, white supremacy has gotten worse.
The feminist responses to “should we separate artist from artwork?” question I discussed above also substitutes aesthetic judgment for political judgment, except the judgment is of disgust instead of beauty. As with beautiful diversity, disgusted feminism uses individuals’ perceptions of disgust to hide the fact that patriarchy is getting worse. As the Kesha-led all-women #MeToo performance at the 2018 Grammys shows, there’s an appetite for women pop stars to make a spectacle of their reclaimed sexual subjectivity–audiences find it aesthetically pleasing. But as Maura Johnston and others noted, this spectacle accompanied an awards ceremony that awarded almost exclusively men, creating a “disconnect between the message of female empowerment and the reality of male dominance.” In the cases I studied above, disgust functions as evidence of women’s or feminist empowerment and the disconnect between aesthetic judgment and political judgment prys open a disconnect between a message of feminist empowerment and the reality of male dominance. Their zero-sum calculus cannot account for the fact that practitioners’ ongoing enjoyment of art makes them complicit in the misogyny baked into artistic conventions–i.e., that they continue to find misogynist aesthetic norms and practices pleasurable and non-disgusting.
So what we need is a non-zero sum approach to this question, one that can account for the fact that an artwork can be both aesthetically pleasurable and politically disgusting, and that because of historical and ongoing/worsening patriarchy in our aesthetic norms and artistic practices, this is the only way for us to engage with and consume art and remain accountable for white supremacy, patriarchy, and other ongoing forms of systemic domination.
Drawing on the work of Angela Davis and Katherine McKittrick, I argue that black women’s vocal performance traditions offer such a model for dealing with white supremacist patriarchal harms from both artists and aesthetic conventions. These aesthetic practices–variously called “heartbreak” or “emulation”— create new forms of relation that make different sorts of pleasures possible. I pay special attention to Rihanna’s vocal performance on her single “Love On The Brain,” which is about domestic abuse. Her performance choices both highlight the fact that pop music conventions make women’s suffering aesthetically pleasurable and reworks the gender politics of such conventions so that the aesthetic pleasure is no longer exclusively tied to patriarchal violence. [And that’s what I have to write next. More later!]
- HWChronicle article
- Rebecca Traister almost gets to this point but doesn’t go so far as to hold the structuring logics of artworks responsible. She argues that “the accused are men who help to determine what art gets seen and appreciated — and, crucially, paid for. They decide whose stories get brought to screens: There is currently a campaign pointing out that Amazon under Price canceled the proto-feminist show Good Girls Revolt, in addition to passing on The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies. These decisions matter; they shape what kinds of messages audiences receive and what kinds of characters they are exposed to.” Misogynist, abusive men determine the content of artworks. This is true, but it misses the point I am trying ot make on 2 counts: first, it’s about content not formal structure; second, it still treats it as a matter of individual bad actors and not gendered norms and practices. https://www.thecut.com/2017/10/halperin-wieseltier-weinstein-powerful-lecherous-men.html
- Beltran, Christina. “Racial Presence as Racial Justice” in Du Bois Review.