On Separation Between Artist and Art

Do we have an obligation to consider artist when we consume art?


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Photo: / Wikimedia Commons

Do we have an obligation to consider artist when we consume art? Are we beholden to the maker—and all of the possibly problematic issues with that artist—even when we only see the final, polished product?

In 2016, actor–director Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation came under intense negative scrutiny in the media. In 1999, Parker had been accused of rape while he was a student at Pennsylvania State University, and the allegations resurfaced as his film attracted press. The Birth of a Nation, a Sundance favorite and Oscar hopeful, suffered after its release due to the allegations against its director and star. Perhaps that’s fair. But did lots of people miss out on a great film?

It tends to be easy to blindly consume media and products without considering the ethical consequences. It’s the way that some people choose to buy fast-fashion even though it was manufactured in poor conditions. Or, how we scarf down hamburgers even though we say we hate factory farming.

The cognitive dissonance manifests in every public sphere, but it feels especially upsetting when it concerns movies. Movies are our escape from real-world controversy, worlds of beautiful people and neatly tied ends. We want the drama of movies to remain in the theater after we’ve left. And so we reason that if we don’t think about it, perhaps the problems cease to exist.

But such reasoning poses a few dilemmas. Firstly, supporting a product whose origin you don’t approve of doesn’t absolve your financial support to the maker. And if you support the product, that’s tacit public approval of everything it’s associated with, whether you like it or not. You don’t get to pick and choose which elements of the product to support—it’s all or nothing.

People talk a lot about “awareness” of issues, as if that solves them. Just be aware of the drawbacks of the particular artist, and then you can go along doing whatever. As though feeling discomfort while condoning a behavior is protest enough.

And sure, maybe a few dollars to a less–than–ideal place is negligible in consideration of the millions of dollars of revenue that the production might collect. And your tacit public approval of the product may go unnoticed, and therefore won’t influence anyone else. So maybe you conclude that it doesn’t make a difference either way, whether you support the product or not. But why not hold yourself to a higher standard? Why not align your actions precisely with your ethical framework? If thousands of people lazily support something because their desires outweigh their ethical reservations, the industry will never change. Ignorance of wrongdoing is damaging to culture as a whole—but awareness without condemnation is worse.

A film can be a fine piece of art in spite of who created it. After all, it doesn’t take flawless character to create a good movie. Maybe you love the whimsical and smart humor of Woody Allen rom–coms, or you enjoy old films even though they portray sexist tropes. But is there such a lack of good rom–coms that we need to constantly watch the ones created by a pedophile? Are there no female–empowering movies from the twentieth century worth watching?

Maybe the mere awareness that I’ve deemed useless is the only thing a movie–lover can do. But the artist and the art are inextricably linked, and as much as art can be a vehicle for escapism, that’s only a hopeful pretense. So draw a line, because that’s the only way to make movies—and the culture in which they exist—better.


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