How should we relate to the work of “cancelled” artists?

In engaging with the output of compromised figures, we must decipher whether the artist’s misdemeanours have a bearing on the moral questions arising from their work.

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In recent years, especially in the wake of the MeToo movement, many art lovers have asked themselves what their response to dishonoured artists should be. Some have decided to “cancel” the offending artists – to boycott their work as a punishment for their wrongdoing. In fact, some media companies have literally cancelled their contracts with artists following allegations of misconduct – perhaps to protect their own products from being cancelled.

But these responses are not responses to the artworks themselves. They are motivated by external reasons pertaining to the artist’s standing and to financial issues.

Of course, such considerations are not utterly conclusive. One might still have reasons to consume works of morally compromised artists such as Leni Riefenstahl. Watching her Triumph of the Will, for example, may be a reasonable thing to do in order to gain insight into the minds of Hitler’s followers for historical purposes or in an effort to comprehend the allure of contemporary fascism.

But here, too, external reasons govern the art lover’s response to the tainted artist, and these can be contrasted with what might be called “reasons of art” – reasons that grow out of our transactions with the artwork itself, reasons internal to the experience of the work. 

Simply reading The Clansman by the white supremacist Thomas Dixon is probably enough for the morally sensitive reader to dismiss it, since the experience of following the narrative, including rooting for the protagonists, asks us to accept racist ideas. 

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Sometimes internal reasons involve moral factors that arise from our very engagement with the works of culpable artists. In such cases, we may wonder whether internal reasons alone could count against our having any contact with blemished goods.

How?

Consider the novel. Novels do not only portray human affairs. Often, they endorse or condemn various ways of being in the world. The novels of the French author Gabriel Matzneff portray paedophilia. But recent revelations about his life indicate irrefutably that his books are also endorsing paedophilia, unlike Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which only portrays it. 

The difference between Nabokov and Matzneff suggests that, when an artist is proven guilty of some wrongdoing, that guilt can be considered in relation to the artist’s works that invite us to endorse the wrongdoing in question. That is, the morally conscientious art lover may justifiably refuse an author’s summons to endorse evil, although, I stress, only in the artist’s works that propose such a contract.

I think this approach makes sense. WB Yeats was a proponent of eugenics. But why should that interfere with our appreciation of his poem “The Fiddler of Dooney”? There are no racial politics there. After all, we continue to use some of the statistical techniques of Karl Pearson, despite his commitment to eugenics, because they benefit us. Likewise, despite Yeats’s failings regarding race, we can benefit from his creations that don’t require us to endorse immoral sentiments. The celebration of joy in “The Fiddler of Dooney” is not compromised by Yeats’s dubious biological convictions.

Similarly, Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism does not give us an internal reason to forsake his children’s stories which do not traffic in this prejudice. If James and the Giant Peach does not internally prescribe our endorsement of anti-Semitism, why cancel it?

Here, I have connected the known moral misbehaviour of the artist with the moral content of the work and urged that, where there is no connection, the art lover should feel free to savour the work. But why put such weight on the existence of bad behaviour as a clue to the artist’s endorsement of evil? Shouldn’t the conscientious art lover feel uncomfortable in the face of the mere portrayal of evil?

No, because the mere portrayal of evil does not always signal endorsement.

David Chase, the showrunner of The Sopranos, presented the mafioso Tony Soprano as a harried family man, thereby eliciting positive feelings for him from many viewers. But the show did not endorse Tony’s criminal activities. Rather, it unmasked the way in which the excuse – “I did it all to take care of my family” – can serve as a rationalisation for the most heinous transgressions. In doing so, it asked the viewers to reflect upon this rationalisation, perhaps even in their own lives.

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Similarly, apparent evil is sometimes lionised for the sake of what might be called “moral immoralism”, where the actions in question are designed to challenge the dubious constraints of conventional morality. For example, violations of established sexual mores, as portrayed in DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, may be foregrounded in order to subvert the status quo, so that what appears immoral serves a higher or more moral morality.

For these reasons, and others maybe even more obvious, the simple portrayal of evil cannot be read as an endorsement of evil. Yet when an artist has been found guilty in their daily life of the very crimes and misdemeanours that are exhibited in their work, then it seems reasonable to suspect that we are meant to endorse them – to embrace a positive attitude toward them. And this is something a righteous art lover may resist, even to the point of closing the book and putting it aside.

Of course, this may not be the final word. There may be reasons to open the book again, possibly to gain a better grasp of the corruption involved. Nevertheless, what I have called “reasons of art” can play a legitimate role in deliberating about what is to be done with respect to disgraced artists. And whether we continue to engage with an artist’s work may depend on weighing our external reasons against our internal ones.

Noël Carroll is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Centre. He is the author of Art in Three Dimensions and Beyond Aesthetics.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto.

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