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Ethics in Culture

On Bad Artists, Good Art

By Kenneth Boyd
12 Jul 2018
Photograph of an older TV with "The Bill Cosby" displayed on it
In my TV deficient life, it can be fun to see whats on the tube while in hotels. I have rather gotten to like the oldies on Retro TV (http://myretrotv.com/)- This was the original Bill Cosby from the late 1960s, not the family show on NBC

It is becoming a common occurrence to read in the news that one of your favorite actors, musicians, filmmakers, or other celebrity does not have the quality of moral character that you perhaps thought they did. Examples are plentiful: Bill Cosby has been convicted on three cases of aggravated assault against women (and been accused of many more); Harvey Weinstein was recently indicted on rape chargers; Kevin Spacey has been accused of sexually propositioning a minor; Spotify recently decided to remove the songs of R Kelly from the platform amid many allegations of sexual assault; and most recently (at least, at the time of writing this) Rosanne Barr’s racist tweets resulted in the cancellation of the reboot of her show Rosanne. What inevitably follows each new accusation, indictment, arrest, or general revelation are articles, opinion pieces, and discussions online and in print asking the same question: is it okay for me to watch shows, or movies, or listen to music, made by people who have done reprehensible things?

Although this question is popping up a lot online, many find it difficult to express how they feel when they learn that their favorite celebrity is, to put in bluntly, a bad person. Many express a kind of discomfort, or guilt, in taking enjoyment in the products of such people; one writer described the feeling as “urpy”. But what’s the right way to think about this urpiness? Is feeling this way a sign that we’re doing something wrong by watching The Cosby Show, or House of Cards, or listening to R Kelly?

Let’s start with a question: what are the potentially morally problematic aspects of watching good shows made by bad people? One thought that perhaps springs to mind is that by watching these shows we are, in some way, condoning the actions of their creators. This certainly seems like something we should not do: the right attitude to have towards reprehensible actions is condemnation, not acceptance or endorsement.

This line of thought has received some backlash. Here, for example, is part of one opinion piece about recent sexual assault allegations against Kevin Spacey, from writer Cary Cooper:

“Even now, knowing what you’ve read about him in the media, you are under no moral obligation to switch the channel if American Beauty comes on. Enjoying the actor’s work doesn’t mean you tacitly endorse the alleged behaviour of Kevin Spacey the private citizen.”

In another opinion, Sheza Arshad Iqbal writes:

“While I do understand and even agree with these actions on the part of these companies [to sever their relationships with Cosby], what I do take issue with is the idea that continuing to watch his programs and enjoy his comedy is wrong or immoral and that it condones or overlooks his actions…Enjoying a person’s work does not mean that you approve of who they are.”

According to this line of thought, the fact that I enjoy Kevin Spacey’s movies or laugh at a Bill Cosby joke does not mean that I endorse or approve of the actions of Kevin Spacey or Bill Cosby. There seems to be something right about this thought: there is a difference between being a fan of The Cosby Show and being a fan of sexual assault. But there is perhaps a more practical way of interpreting the claim that engaging with the work of a bad person condones or approves of that person, namely that by watching The Cosby Show you are, in some small way, putting money in the pocket of Bill Cosby. Watching The Cosby Show then results in a kind of support for Cosby, we might think, and it does not seem that we should knowingly support, financially or otherwise, the work of bad people.

But again this is perhaps too quick. We might think, for example, that even though I might, in some small way, be putting money in the pocket of Bill Cosby by watching The Cosby Show, I am also putting money into the pockets of all the other people who worked on the show. Consider, for instance, the recent cancellation of Rosanne: Rosanne Barr lost her job, but so did many other people who were involved with the show. We might not want to put money in Barr’s pocket, but shouldn’t we want to put money in the pockets of those who were caught up in the unwitting fallout of Barr’s reckless actions?

There is one more reason why we might think that we’re not doing anything wrong by watching shows made by bad people, namely that we can get a lot of enjoyment, or, in some cases, even intellectual stimulation out of watching these shows. As Russell Smith from the Globe and Mail argues:

“Fictional narratives, good or bad, are a kind of oxygen for my brain. If I were to stop delving into unpleasant, embarrassing or possibly immoral art for any reason, I would feel cut off from my own intellect. I would feel stupid.”

Here’s the idea: I might feel some kind of guilt or urpiness in taking enjoyment in the work of people who have done bad things. But the benefits I get from engaging with this work outweigh the costs: if I were to completely boycott the work of all people who had done bad things then I would be depriving myself (and potentially others) of works that are interesting and engaging. We might go one step further: my own boycotting of these shows will likely have little to no impact on the show’s creator, and will not prevent any similarly bad things from happening in the future. So why should I deprive myself of enjoying their work?

Some have responded that there is plenty of intellectually stimulating and pleasurable work by artists who are not bad people that is readily available, and so there is really no reason to prefer the former over the latter. Tyler Coates, writing in Esquire, argues in this way:

“There will be other TV shows and other movies. There will be other actors and writers and directors…who will make us question our world and find wonder in it (and ourselves). Will the art ever be so important, so vital to our collective identity, that we cannot let it go? Or can we use the lessons learned from great works of art and remember that humans are complicated—capable both of good and bad things. The former may outweigh the latter sometimes, but perhaps that’s not a standard we should be so eager to accept.”

We might think, then, that even if House of Cards is critically acclaimed, that there are certainly other critically acclaimed shows out there that could entertain us just as well. If we have a choice between watching something made by someone who has done reprehensible things and something made by someone who hasn’t, why wouldn’t we just watch something else?

There is, however, one final response to these worries that many have expressed online and in print: in deciding what to watch or listen to or otherwise engage in, one has to separate the art from the artist. Once we do this, we can see that it ultimately doesn’t matter what the artist did, since enjoying their art has nothing at all to do with them as a person. Since Doctor Huxtable the character never assaulted any women (as far as we know) there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in his exploits.

But again this kind of argument seems too blunt. Some have written that there does not seem to be an easy way to completely separate the artist from the art, especially when the artist is still alive and profiting off of their art. For example, Amanda Hess, writer for the New York Times, tweeted:

“can we now do away with “separating the art from the artist”? the critical acclaim and economic clout of the art facilitates the abuse”

And here is Tyler Coates again:

“It’s time to stop separating the art from the artist, even if I understand the impulse to do so. After all, no one wants to see their hero revealed to be someone not-so-heroic. You’re not a bad person for appreciating the art created by an abuser, especially since these details are often hidden out of sight from the consumer. But it’s different when you prioritize whatever that person has created—a movie, a TV show, a song—over the real people they have allegedly victimized because you are more attached to what they have created than open to believing the (in some cases) numerous allegations against the creator.”

This argument might seem persuasive in the case of The Cosby Show, or Rosanne, or even House of Cards: there are plenty of other shows that I could watch that are just as good or better, so why not just watch those? But we might wonder: what about cases of truly great art, art for which there are perhaps not any better alternatives available? For example, composer Richard Wagner is a popular example of the need to separate artist from art: as a person, he espoused reprehensible anti-Semitic views, but as an artist he composed masterpieces of opera. Or consider movies made by Woody Allen: some of these works have been critically acclaimed, some even considered masterpieces. While there is certainly other opera to listen to, and other movies to watch, we might think that no alternative can provide you with the kinds of experiences that one can get from these great works.

Perhaps there is a line we can draw between the living and the dead. Here is part of an opinion from Hannah Jane Parkinson, writing for The Guardian:

“Clearly there is a difference between continuing to support an individual’s livelihood and appreciating their past work (especially if they’re dead). If the work is historic we can view it critically without actively supporting or enabling a dubious character. There’s also the consideration that if we cease to appreciate all historic art by badly behaved creators – well, would we be left with any art at all?”

At least when an artist has died we are not supporting them directly by appreciating their work: we are at least not putting any more money in their pockets.

Let’s take stock of the arguments for and against the view that it is wrong to watch the shows, or movies, or listen to the music made by people who have done bad things. On the one hand, doing so might seem to represent a kind of endorsement, or condoning, or at least downplaying of the morally reprehensible actions of the artists, especially when they are alive (since you will be supporting them, in some small way, financially) and there are other things to watch and listen to. On the other hand, we might think that art and artist need to be separated, and that one can appreciate the former without endorsing the latter, especially when the art is significant and the artist is dead.

With arguments on both sides, some have taken the position that it is really just a matter of personal preference as to whether one continues to enjoy the work made by bad people. Here is an example of one kind of statement you’re likely to find online:

“One can still enjoy something while disliking the person who created it. Or one can’t. It’s really up to you!”

But I think we can do better than this. Consider one final way that we can think about some of our initial worries: while we might not be condoning the actions directly, we may at least be implicitly condoning the actions of a society that continues to celebrate such creators. We do not, presumably, want it to be the case that bad people should be successful or celebrated, but by watching their shows, or movies, or listening to their music – especially if we could be watching someone else’s – then we seem to be doing just that. We can see this kind of argument present in Hess’ tweet that the critical acclaim that we give to the work of bad artists “facilitates the abuse”: by continuing to engage with these works we are, in essence, endorsing the view that one can be celebrated despite performing egregious actions. We are not, then, endorsing those acts themselves. What we might be doing instead is contributing in some small way to a society that accepts the work of abusers, so long as that work is deemed entertaining enough.

We need to keep in mind, though, that there is a difference between saying that by watching The Cosby Show you are potentially doing something morally wrong and saying that you are thereby a “bad person”. As we have seen, editorials and opinion pieces will often react to this second, much stronger claim. But again, we need to think more carefully than this: no one is putting forth the view that one’s overall moral character is determined solely by whether they watch House of Cards, so arguing that watching that show doesn’t make one a bad person seems more like a distraction than anything else. The more important point is the more subtle one: we feel guilty for watching shows or movies or listening to music made by bad people because we are worried that we are making some contribution, no matter how small, to a world in which these people can continue to flourish.

Ken Boyd holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto. His philosophical work concerns the ways that we can best make sure that we learn from one another, and what goes wrong when we don’t. You can read more about his work at kennethboyd.wordpress.com
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