Most media, barring things that are biographical or autobiographical, are designed to be consumed in the absence of the artist. When you read a book, the author is seldom there to explain his or her work. When you watch a film or television program, the actors and directors and screenwriters and producers are not whispering in your ear… unless you’re playing the commentary track, I suppose. The musician shouldn’t have to explain the song’s meaning. Even stand-up comedians, who often pull from personal experience, are editing the stories they tell; as the audience, we laugh, but we never really believe we’re hearing the whole thing.
However, with the rise of social media, and with greater access to authors and actors and comedians, etc.—with the popularity of those commentary tracks, and with the growing sense that the person with the most trivial information somehow “wins” because it proves he or she is the biggest, best fan—we seldom consume media without knowing something about those who make it. Sure, some of these creators remain coy, but many more have embraced Twitter and Instagram and whatever else is popular these days. One can communicate with them, one can chase them and their work all over the Internet, collecting facts and tidbits like squirrels collect nuts.
But what happens when an artist or creator is an asshole?
“Never meet your heroes,” the old saying goes. The unspoken conclusion being that you’re bound to be disappointed by their simple humanity. But when your favorite author or actor is not only human but in some ways seemingly subhuman… What then? Are you allowed to like their books or movies or TV shows any more?
It’s the age-old conflict: separating the art from the artist. Can you?
Art isn’t created in a vacuum; each contributor puts something of him- or herself into the work. Why else do we spend high school lit classes deconstructing things like The Great Gatsby? Every time we had to read a book in school, didn’t we also have to read that little biographical paragraph about the author? And who decides what to tell and what to leave out of those?
Back in the day, it was okay to like Woody Allen movies. Now you can like them, but only if you feel guilty about it. Many more people would rather just not watch than have to feel that way. But they can’t erase the fact that they have seen some of those movies. Do they say, “Well, I watched those before…”? Does watching or reading something by a disgraced artist make you complicit in whatever caused their downfall?
It’s an honest question. I’m not defending Allen or any other condemned creator. I really want to know how people feel about this.
My understanding is, largely, that not buying books by, or watching movies by, artists who have behaved badly is a form of boycott. “Don’t give them your money,” seems to be the underlying notion. Of course, most of them have plenty of money already, so… But what if you borrow the book from the library? Or watch the movie on a streaming service you subscribe to? Are you not meant to patronize these artists at all because to do so suggests tacit endorsement, not only of their work but their life choices?
I, for one, end up having a tough time enjoying work by “bad” artists because I can’t forget what they’ve done (if I happen to know). It lingers in the back of the mind. It taints the things I used to enjoy, like food that’s starting to go off. You might still can eat it—it’s not so far gone—but it tastes wrong. I mean, even if it’s something as minor as having read that this or that author was rude in a situation… Maybe I can excuse them, depending on the circumstances, but if I hear that it happens regularly… When I read a book by them, I won’t be able to not think that this writer is a jerk. And knowing a jerk has written the book I’m reading definitely dampens the enjoyment. Sometimes I might even transfer those feelings to the book’s characters and think they’re all jerks, too, because of course a jerk writer can only create jerk characters, right?
Well, no. Of course not. Writers create all kinds of characters. But knowing something about the author creates an overlay to anything you read by them. Same with actors; suddenly, every role they play is colored by that personal knowledge. Instead of diverse characters, you begin to see them all as similar because they are connected by this mental tint.
It’s enough to make one not want to ever know anything about their favorite authors, actors, etc. Isn’t it?
How do you feel about these things? Do you refuse to support certain artists because of their past behaviors? Is ignorance bliss? Is ignorance even possible in a day and age in which information moves so fast?