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The Art Versus The Artist Is A Personal Choice — And It’s Worth Reexamining

Once you learn something damning about a person attached to a movie, TV show or song you love, where does that love go?

By Candice Frederick | Published Nov. 7, 2023

This story is a part of our weeklong series on cancel culture.
Read the other stories here.

Maybe this has happened to you before. You’re enamored of some film you’ve seen and decide to post about it on social media. Something like: “OMG, [XYZ] is soooo good. It’s one of my all-time favorites.” And while you’re in mid-glow about it, someone sends you a full report on how shitty the director, actor or some other talent behind the project is as a person.

It’s usually something to this effect: “I used to love this movie too, but I found out that [XYZ] did [insert shitty behavior here] and now I can’t even stomach it.”

That is a totally fair stance for someone to have. It often has to do with whether the shitty person’s behavior is triggering to them, whether it conflicts with their own social or political beliefs, or how much empathy they have for whomever the shitty person directly affected. Whatever the reason, it’s a personal choice, and they have every right to feel that way.

But any expectation that anyone else should also feel that way is a bit concerning and very hive mind. Each of us has our own relationship with a piece of art that we admire that can have little to do with a talent’s personality or conduct. It really is just about the art sometimes.

That can be a hard truth, especially in a culture that too often conflates a flawed or despicable character with the actual actor who portrays them. Doing so already strips down the wall between reality and fiction to the point where they’re one and the same.

That’s further exacerbated when so much of a celebrity’s personhood has been made available to us — with and without their permission — and, in turn, we feel entitled to it.

That time they cheated on a spouse. The scrambled eggs they made for breakfast. Photos of their kids. The very problematic and politically incorrect post they decided to share with the world. Crimes they committed.

This is the same celebrity culture that oddly exalts celebrities. So when they fuck up, and they often do, many people can’t even deal with it. They feel betrayed, realizing only then that the celebrity was human (or maybe worse than most humans) this whole time.

Beyond that, we also demand some sort of justice or a proper dismantling of their celebrity once they commit the offense(s). It’s both our way of taking a stand and urging a sense of accountability, as increasingly elusive as that accountability seems to be.

Should that comeuppance also extend to the person’s art? Well, it depends, once again, on whom you ask. It might depend on whether you’ve already seen and loved the movie, TV show, song or other work of art. Because once you learn something damning about a person attached to the art, where does that love go?

We’re in an era when things and people are either black or white, right or wrong. ... We need to get more comfortable with expressing and engaging with thoughts and feelings around art that make us uncomfortable.

One could argue that your admiration immediately dissolves upon hearing the news. But that would then raise another question: Did you ever really love it to begin with if it was that easy to drop?

Maybe that kind of love is true for some people, but not for all of us. Divorcing ourselves from the art we consider great means also giving up something we enjoy engaging with, challenging and watching, sometimes on loop. It requires necessitating a break-up we may or may not actually want, but feel like it’s the right thing to do.

None of those things are easy. And, to be fair, they imply a willingness that just might not be there. That’s not to say that we are open to compromising our social or political values for a work of art that involves a miscreant. It only really means that we’re complicated humans who can occasionally seem contradictory.

It also means we lose the opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion about these complicated feelings we have around said art. But the social culture isn’t currently set up in a way that contemplative discourse can really thrive. We’re in an era when things and people are either black or white, right or wrong.

The reality that there can be, and often are, multiple truths isn’t even considered.

Let’s dismiss that here for a moment, though. Suppose you can have equally strong feelings about both a song and the shitty human behind it. You can even feel conflicted about that, even though both things remain true. But as uncomfortable as that might be to admit, especially in those precarious social media streets, there shouldn’t be shame attached to it.

It just means that we need to get more comfortable with expressing and engaging with thoughts and feelings around art that make us uncomfortable.

Like how enjoying a movie isn’t the same thing as enjoying the shitty person involved with it. For one thing, there are many talented, generally unproblematic workers involved in making a piece of art, far beyond the one problematic human associated with it (or even a few of them, if that’s the case).

Canceling the art would also mean canceling what all these other people put into it, too. And if disrupting the income that empowers said shitty person or people is a prominent goal, how that impacts the talent around them on a project is a worthy discussion.

There’s an ecosystem of shitty conduct throughout Hollywood — and across all industries — that has and should have given us plenty of reasons to reflect, speak out, and as we’ve seen repeatedly, rightfully demand accountability. But the kind of response one should have to the art, in relation to the malefactor involved, remains as debatable as ever.