Staff Editorial: Separating Artists From Their Actions

Sarah Cullen, Senior, Co-Graphic Design and Layout Editor

It seemed, in the past few weeks, that every time one turned on the news, there was another wave of celebrity scandals and allegations: Academy Award-winning producer Harvey Weinstein, Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, Emmy Award-winning comedian Louis C.K, and respected journalist Charlie Rose were all accused of (and all but one admitted to) sexual harassment. C.K., in admitting his actions, issued a statement of remorse, without ever actually using the words “I’m sorry” to any of the women to whom he had exposed himself. The celebrity culture in our society has allowed famous people to get away with criminal behaviors simply because they are in a position of power. However, this is no new trend. Many other beloved actors and artists have been accused of sexual assault, rape and even murder. In 1921, famed film comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was tried and acquitted of the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Virginia Rappe, and although he was found not guilty, his career was effectively ruined because his audiences just didn’t find him all that funny anymore and couldn’t ever look at him the same way again. On a recent episode of The Late Show, host Stephen Colbert discussed with guest Jerry Seinfeld the controversy around Bill Cosby, Seinfeld’s favorite childhood comedian, who was accused of sexual assaults dating back to 2004. Seinfeld mentioned that growing up, Bill Cosby had always been his favorite comedian, and still, in fact, was. Colbert said that he just couldn’t separate the artist from the art — that no matter how funny Cosby’s jokes may be, he could no longer laugh at them knowing what the comedian may have done. Their discussion poses an interesting question: should people be able to separate the actions of the artist from their art? Is it wrong to continue to support artists who have been accused of terrible things, like sexual assault?

Some on our staff say that no matter what, if an artist has been accused of harassment, sexual assault or rape, it’s wrong to continue to support them, even if there is a chance that the performer may be innocent. They contend that purchasing a ticket to a movie, going to a concert, even buying a recording sends a message that one is enabling and perpetuating rape culture. Others on The Pel Mel feel that to destroy someone’s career on the basis of an accusation is dangerous. Look at what happened to “Fatty Arbuckle.” Look at those whose careers were destroyed in the blacklists of the 1950s when they were unfairly accused of certain political leanings without any proof.

Still, people struggle with the question. Let’s take the issue of sexual violence out of the equation. Is it possible to enjoy someone’s artistry or talent and ignore any of the questionable actions they take in their personal lives? When we watch a performer, aren’t we watching them portray a character? To some extent, shouldn’t we, the audience be able to tell the difference between a character and a personality, and enjoy one while, perhaps, hating the other? Or is it just too hard to get the sound of Mel Gibson’s anti-semitic rants out of one’s head while watching him play a lovable dad on film? Is it still possible to enjoy listening to Amy Winehouse’s music and ignore the pain of drug addiction that, perhaps, made her voice have the edge that it did? Can we still laugh at Robin Williams’ films knowing the crippling depression just behind his smile and what it eventually led him to do? Or are these instances different because the crimes they committed were against themselves? Is there a difference between those who inflict harm upon themselves and those who abuse their power over others? Is it even our place to judge them when we may be living in glass houses of our own?

Maybe the answers to these questions are ambiguous, and vary by circumstance. Maybe one’s personal enjoyment of a movie, painting, song or performance is not dependent upon the artist’s moral character. Just because one thinks a combination of colors and brush-strokes is aesthetically pleasing or that an actor does an excellent job of portraying a complex and emotional character doesn’t mean that one is signing a declaration saying that you approve of everything the artist has done. Perhaps the question is not so much should you separate an artist from their art, but rather can you.

These questions cannot be answered for every single person in some perfect all-knowing way, but they are something to think about every time these types of allegations are revealed. After all, beauty — or disgust — is in the eye of the beholder. And how sad that we live in a time when these things even need to be considered.