The Art of Abusers

In 2014, two big pop culture events rocked my small world: the YouTuber sexual assault scandal, specifically one creator called Alex Day, and the termination of Jian Ghomeshi's relationship with the CBC following accusations of sexual harassment and violence.

A few weeks prior to the accusation that Alex Day had sexually assaulted several past girlfriends and fans, I had preordered his book about the history of the London Underground. His publisher dropped him almost instantaneously, and I assumed the book would never see the light of day. However, a few months later, Alex emerged anew on the internet, sitting in front of 2000 copies of his book that he no longer had anyone to distribute or promote. He offered personalized signatures to anyone who purchased his book.

I thought about it a lot. I was so interested in the subject matter, and I am a sucker for an author-autographed copy; however ordering it felt like a betrayal - but of who or what? His past girlfriends? My morals and ethics? All women who'd ever been abused?

I felt convicted about it, but I ordered the book.

I had, and continue to have, similar struggles with Ghomeshi. I had met him at a book signing just a year previously. I had his personalized signature sitting on my bookshelf. I considered throwing it out. I considered deleting every single one of the hundreds of saved Q podcasts I had on my computer. I debated deleting the photo of me and two friends with Ghomeshi, his once-charming smile seeming like a sinister grin now.

I felt convicted about it, but I kept the book and the podcasts and the photo.

This is not an original question or an unfamiliar struggle. Hollywood has been plagued with racists, rapists, child abusers and assaulters since forever. Everyone knows that Woody Allen sexually abused his daughter; Roman Polanski raped underage girls; Bill Cosby drugged and raped more than 50 women; Mel Gibson is a bigot and a racist; Nate Parker is a homophobe who sexually assaulted women; Casey Affleck sexually harassed and assaulted his coworkers, to name but a few.

But we keep watching their movies, their shows, their interviews. We give them awards and applaud them in front of millions of people. We discuss how gross Woody Allen is over coffee and muffins, and then we watch Annie Hall on the weekend. We buy their books and we endorse them over, and over, and over.

Except: are we endorsing them? Or are we endorsing their art?

I know there is a separation between art and artist. I spent most of my academic life discussing the separation of author from text, how the two entities exist independently of each other. How the author's intent doesn't matter - all that matters is the final product. And yet when it comes to real world repercussions, I struggle.

How do we separate Manchester by the Sea and Casey Affleck's Oscar-winning performance from the man himself? Are we awarding Casey the Actor, or are we awarding Casey the Sexual Predator? Does it even matter?

Can you love Annie Hall as much as you did before you knew Woody Allen was a child abuser? Can you watch the movie and separate the script, the performance, the feeling it gives you from the man who sexually assaulted his daughter? Does it colour our affection? Is "no" or "yes" even the right answer?

How do I listen to Ghomeshi read out letters from survivors of sexual violence on air without cringing and screaming HYPOCRITE at the top of my lungs?

The problem is both practical and ethical. Art, or at least the art I'm talking about, is a product to be consumed. On a practical level, does it matter if I read Ghomeshi's book over again? I've already paid for it, so he won't benefit financially from me. If I watch a friend's copy of Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson will never get a dime from me.

But what is my ethical responsibility? Do I continue to give my time and attention and headspace to the work of people who have committed crimes that offend my very being? Do we try and lessen the amount of cultural capital that these men are allowed to hold onto?

I don't have any answers. I think I struggle because this isn't a part of the cultural discourse. Sure, websites will detail the minute pieces of information about Nate Parker's acquittal, but we don't talk about how we approach his art. We don't make collective conscious decisions - why, for example, did Parker's Birth of a Nation tank at the box office, while Casey Affleck continued to earn accolades for Manchester by the Sea? What are the parameters?

My hope is that we start talking more about the separation of art and artist, and what the cultural capital is of their work. I don't think there are any right answers, but we certainly need to start asking ourselves and each other these big questions.

Art matters. Who we laud and who we bury matters. Because whoever we put on a pedestal is a reflection of our own values reflected back at us. And I certainly don't see much I like in the mirror.

** While the men I've written about have not been convicted, I chose not to use the phrase "accused of" or "alleged".

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