Consuming, and dissecting, art in the #MeToo era
How can we forge a new relationship with artists and their work in the wake of problematic revelations?
Last week, a few hours after The New York Times reported that comedian Louis C.K. was guilty of sexual misconduct, the actress Lucy DeCoutere uttered an exasperated sigh on Twitter. "I feel like I should consume the work of my favourite male actors, comedians musicians, etc., as quickly as possible in case yet another dude whom I used to respect is found to be an abusive asshat no longer worthy of support."
That night, Trevor Noah joked on The Daily Show that "we're going to need a new Oscar category – Best Actor Whose Movies We Can't Watch Any More."
Sure enough, it has become a little tougher for fans to watch Louis C.K.'s work now, even for those who haven't suddenly lost the taste to do so: In the wake of the revelations, HBO in the United States and Bell Media in Canada pulled his stand-up programming from their on-demand services and the cable network FX cut ties with him and his production company.
The Nov. 17 release of I Love You, Daddy, a comedy he had written, directed, stars in and self-financed, which its distributor was positioning for an awards-season run after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, was also scrapped.
That move came days after Sony Pictures announced it would erase Kevin Spacey, another newly disgraced actor, from his most recent film, All the Money in the World, and reshoot his scenes with Christopher Plummer in hopes of still hitting its intended Dec. 22 release. Meanwhile, Hamilton-based CHCH-TV pulled old episodes of House of Cards from its schedule this week, telling viewers that, because of the allegations about Spacey, "the show itself has now become controversial." Writers on the Netflix series are feverishly trying to work up a new storyline that will allow them to produce a new, final season for the streaming service without Spacey.
The moves, with their whiff of expunging inconvenient history, may seem reminiscent of Soviet regimes airbrushing people suddenly deemed persona non grata out of official photographs. (It also conjures the possibility of another Soviet-era relic, the creation of samizdat marketplaces, where fans might clandestinely trade material of disgraced artists.)
If the approach seems reminiscent of communism's culture-snuffing machinery, the companies now cutting artists loose are driven by pure capitalist calculations, ones which determined that the potential upside to continuing business with the tarnished stars was not worth the potential downside.
But for many fans, the decision is more complicated: How to forge a new relationship with the work of an artist – and maybe the artist himself – who has suddenly become problematic?
For critics and curators, this is not necessarily a new issue. "Many of us have been watching (and reading and listening) from this kind of complicated perspective for a long time," noted Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director, in an e-mail this week replying to a request for an interview.
Bailey was not suggesting he knew about C.K.'s misconduct. (Indeed, he said, he was unaware of the swirling rumours when he programmed I Love You, Daddy.) Rather, he explained the next day over the phone, "if you've watched movies critically in any way, then this has been a part of how you watch a movie.
"If you're a feminist, if you're black, if you're gay, you probably grew up watching work critically to begin with, so you knew some of these artists didn't like people like you. And that's just a fact that you had to live with," Bailey said. In university, he recalled, his course work included reading philosophers who were known to be racist or anti-Semitic. "And you have to kind of keep that in mind, as you continue to enrich your mind. It doesn't mean that you block those things out, but you take that into account. It's hard to do. It makes your life more complicated."
Still, he chuckled, life and art is supposed to be complicated. "It just happens that there's a bit of a barrage of personal histories that are awful, coming out right now, and it's making the job a bit more urgent in terms of how you bring that context to watching films." (He hastened to add that he understands people who choose to not engage with the work of artists they find personally reprehensible.)
Some things may be too complicated, though: TIFF recently removed a podcast of an interview with Louis C.K. recorded during the festival, explaining to The Globe it had done so, "since its content, told within the context of his film I Love You, Daddy, is diminished by the accusations and admission from Louis C.K. of his sexual harassment."
Other art forms have faced similar questions, and often shrugged off the moral implications: Michael Jackson's career endured some bumps from his brushes with the law and the tabloids over his penchant for sleeping (in the same bed) with young boys, but fans continued to flock to his shows and buy his albums. Before him, many rock musicians in the 1970s used and abused the sometimes underage girls who found their way onto tour buses.
The art world has been grappling with some of these questions for decades. Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock were adored by curators and collectors despite their abusive treatment of women in their lives. Since their deaths, their personal behaviour and art has come under new scrutiny.
In the late 19 th century, Paul Gauguin famously abandoned his wife and five children to move to the South Pacific and shack up with three native girls between the ages of 13 and 14. He infected them, and likely others, with syphilis before dying of the disease. He also made his own (white, male, French-born) fantasies the stuff of his art. Over the past two decades, critics have vigorously reappraised his life and work, even while some have cautioned against imposing contemporary standards on historical behaviour.
"With Gauguin, the one fault I have is that he never saw the women as equal, and human beings, and from that point of view I would have a great problem with the art," said Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, an art historian, this week. "But does that mean I will not look at his art and understand it within the connections, like Picasso or Munch, or what was great art or what was produced at the time? Absolutely not."
"Gauguin is a perfect example of the role of the male artist in the late 19 th century, and the complexities of living as a man and as an artist, and how he related to women," she added. "You have to place yourself perhaps in two different modes. If you're going to be a judge, you're going to be a sociologist, you're going to be a feminist – go right ahead. But if you look at it, you don't go to a museum to make judgment. You go to a museum for your soul to be aesthetically moved, to see creativity, to see beauty."
Bailey, the TIFF artistic director, argues that, at least in the realm of film, those judgments can both deepen and darken our appreciation of the work. He noted that the singer Bjork recently announced that a "Danish director," presumed to be Lars von Trier (with whom she made Dancer in the Dark), had mistreated her.
"I think Lars von Trier is a remarkable, unique voice in cinema, but there are patterns in his films, and one of his patterns is making his female characters suffer," Bailey acknowledged. "You can write about that in a very scholarly way as a kind of trope that recurs in his films, or it can be a sign of something darker that he's expressing. So when that becomes amplified by [Bjork's comments] … yeah, that does make you look at those films differently. And so, if it came down now to decisions about showing those films, I think the context is absolutely essential."
Similarly, Bailey said that revelations of Alfred Hitchcock's brutal treatment of some of his leading ladies has prompted a re-evaluation. "It doesn't mean we stop watching those films. It means we watch them with new eyes, in a way."
Perhaps, he suggested, the re-evalution will also spur a renewed look at the work of female contemporaries: "Let's look at Dorothy Arzner's films as well, let's look at Ida Lupino's films, as we're looking at the films that were made by men in those era," he said. "I think as we recontextualize and reframe these movies, as we learn more about the men who made them, we may also find room to look more closely at, and elevate, films by women."