Feet of Clay - About Separating the Art from the Artist

         How can a person separate a piece of art they enjoy or admire from the personal life of its creator? I have been mulling over this question for years now, since a musician whose work I eagerly devoured was accused of being a statutory rapist. I watched in confusion as he made a weak denial via Twitter and disappeared from the Internet, as hundreds of other bewildered fans debated his guilt and began to boycott his work. Tom Milsom used to be the most-played artist in my library. One of his songs was my morning alarm, and I started every day with it for months. Now, when his songs came on in my iTunes, I was haunted by the thought of him forcing a fifteen year old to have sex with him. The beautiful sounds he produced that I had once loved now felt depraved.  

         The curtain fell. I realized that every performer, artist, activist, and author who I revered had made poor decisions, or said questionable things. Some of them were racist. Some of them were abusers. All of them had hurt people, at some point, in varying degrees. No human is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. We don’t idolize people who are close to us, because we know this – but the world puts people they’ve never met on pedestals. I wondered if publicly being a fan of person X was to risk endorsing some unknown wrong. If I publicly liked Lana del Rey, was I okay with her wearing a Native American Headdress for fashion in a music video? Was it hypocritical for me to voice my disapproval of cultural appropriation, when I had enjoyed Lana's work that was a prime example of it

         After researching a few beloved famous people, my eyebrows were permanently raised, and my jaw was permanently dropped. Walt Disney was racist and anti-Semitic. Winston Churchill was… well… not the wise, peace-loving man he is remembered as. Bill Cosby was one of the most adored father figures in the American media for decades, and a prime example of how dangerous it can be to assign blind trust to a person's public persona. The list of celebrated people with horrible skeletons in their closet seems never-ending. Every person is problematic if you dig around on Google for a few minutes. Every potential role model is a flawed human being, like the rest of us, or mind-bogglingly worse. 

         However, if a person decides they can’t subscribe to anything made by a flawed person, will there be anything in the world they can guiltlessly enjoy? Is this a necessary degree of cynicism in an attempt to be responsible, or just foolish idealism that leads down a rabbit hole? Only consuming pop culture, art, or wisdom by people who have never hurt other people, even indirectly, seems impossible.  

         There’s another layer that complicates this even more – what if you really like their work? It’s common to hear, “I know they did x, but I like their music/work/teachings, I can’t help it.” The artist continues to profit off of everyone’s complacency; if not enough people draw attention to or care about their negative behavior, they can continue unfazed. More importantly, they will continue to gain new, younger viewers as time passes, who will see that no one cares about this behavior, and therefore think that the behavior is acceptable. They may even emulate it. 

         Brad Brevet, who writes the film blog Rope of Silicon, said, "Obviously no one supports what [Roman] Polanski did or what [Woody] Allen allegedly did, but should that stop us from watching Repulsion and Midnight in Paris? Should it stop people from starring in those films?... It's a massive moral quandary and I don't think the answer is black-and-white."

         I agree with Brad that there can be no black-and-white answer as to what points of view, music, art, and words should and should not be consumed. Refusing to support any person without a clean background feels akin to extreme veganism; a moral high ground on a slippery slope. We can abstain from eating animal products, and then wearing them, and then using any product that was created with any kind of unethical labor, in any capacity, in any of its parts – until we have narrowed our options to a degree where our own lives are homogeneous and empty. The decisions of what to consume are deeply personal and based on our individual morals, but I believe that universally, some kind of balance is necessary for happiness. 

         So, we can choose whose work to support based on our individual morals. But what about those impressionable young fans whose moral compasses are still developing? Any person with an audience has an influence, and that includes you as well as the artist in question. In the words of Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. If we decide that a person’s negative actions or opinions outweigh whatever good they contribute to the world, is it right to try to spread our view to others? When you recommend people to your friends and family, how responsible are you for the impact of their behavior? Is it our responsibility to tell people that someone is “bad”? What is “bad”? If “bad” is different to every person, is there anything so “bad” that everyone should agree on it?

         I don't know. For me, since the day I learned about Tom Milsom’s crimes, the separation of an artist from their work exists on a case-by-case basis. I am conflicted about my enjoyment of numerous artist's work, but find myself unable to just turn that enjoyment off. 

         We all have choices to make. In my opinion, to not at least give a quick Google on the background of your favorite actor or artist is to be willfully ignorant. Use your own moral compass to determine what you can and can’t stand for, but always be informed. Ignorance is bliss, and sometimes, knowledge is difficult. I know that on many occasions, I just want to un-hear particular messed-up realities – it would be so much easier to not have to consider the complexities of social injustices, and the part I might play. But if you’re going to go sailing, it’s a good idea to know what's swimming under your boat.

         This post has just been some rambling food for thought. I am not trying to tell anyone where to draw their own lines, and I'm far from being an authority on anything. I'm a 22 year old white girl who cares a great deal about many things, and that is that. There is so much I don't know. 

         However, at the naïve age of 22, I want to end this with an imperative that I do know: a person’s public persona is not who they are – it’s a carefully calculated appearance, crafted by public relations and flattering angles. The best any of us can do is to try to live honestly and with integrity – to treat people with kindness and respect, and to go out of our way to help others. As cliche as it sounds, we should be our own role models.

Panera Head

        I have been toiling 6 days a week at a Panera Bread in Ithaca, New York. The job gave my first few months after graduating college a schedule, and a sense of purpose that I had already started to miss. It was an intravenous drip for my bank account, and came with the bonus of new skills learned, frustration, and occasional laughter with new friends.

         I began bussing tables and passing out hors d'oeuvres in little black pants when I was 16 years old, and have worked in catering and various food-industry situations on and off ever since. Call me crazy, but I’ve always found it fun and weirdly satisfying to be on my feet for hours, bending to the whims of hungry people; the money is good, there’s never a dull moment, and it feels like honest work. I enjoy arranging an event, helping it go smoothly, and then breaking it down.

        Panera was a familiar scene, but with more structure. For all of the monotony of working in the same area every day with the same script, though, I found joy in the small things. I broke rolls of coins like piñatas. I drew pictures for my managers on the envelopes where we kept our chits. The idea for what you’re reading was scrawled onto recite paper when no one was looking and stuffed into my apron pocket. Here are some of my fleeting thoughts from my days behind the counter:

 

Panera Customers are Disproportionately Named Dave, Kathy Or Cheryl

Take my word for it. 

Commas are an Archaic, Pre-Texting Tool That Few Understand

Example 1: If I asked people whether they would like an apple, chips, or bread as their side, a large number would answer ‘apple chips’. The order had to be switched to prevent confusion.

Example 2: At least once a day, someone ordered a “mango wildberry strawberry banana smoothie!!!” (hint: those are 4 different flavors, separated on our menu board by the elusive comma.)

People Can Be Mean

Being a cashier is not rocket science, but when you’re taking orders from hundreds of people in the span of a few hours, it’s not difficult to make a mistake or two. For this reason, the real skills required to be a cashier are not strong button-pushing fingers, but an immense amount of patience and grace. The other day, a fellow employee said to me that, in the way that some countries require all citizens to join the army for a few years, ours should require everyone to work briefly in food service*. It was a bitter reaction to being yelled at by an ornery old woman who threw her incorrect drive-through order into our ice bucket. I couldn’t help but smile imagining her on the other side of the register.

* Is that not the most American thing you’ve ever heard? 

People, In General, Are Kind

In the five weeks that I worked as a cashier, 3 different people offered me a tip. I told each of them that I wasn’t allowed to accept them. When I explained them that I was on camera, and could actually be reprimanded for accepting their dollar, all three insisted on leaving it in an inconspicuous place. One man asked, “Well, do you sweep the floors?” When I told him that I did, he dropped his dollar bill on the floor, smiled, and walked away.

I'm sure these people have forgotten the dollar they gave to their cashier at Panera, but I will remember the $3 I collected from these instances long after I have spent the last of my paychecks.

Children Are A Mystery

A little girl with Disney princess heels and a smile full of missing teeth came up the register with a voucher for a free pastry. She said, “I’m having a dispute between a brownie and a cinnamon roll. Do you make them every night?” While inwardly marveling at a seven year old using the word ‘dispute’, I explained to her that we do indeed make new pastries every night, and also hinted that the brownies tend to disappear faster than the cinnamon rolls. Her eyes lit up and she immediately decided on a brownie. Feeling like a cool older sister, I asked her which brownie from behind the counter she would like. She gave me a look and said, “it doesn’t matter, ma’am.” MA’AM.

It was hard to preserve my remaining dignity while trying to separate brownies with tongs. The whole encounter left me feeling like a 22 year old dinosaur, until I remembered how offended I get when people think I’m 16.

Ignorance is Bliss

There are some caveats for this section. None of this is an attack on Panera: they are a well-oiled machine that cares deeply about cleanliness, transparency, and serving the freshest food possible. They bake their breads, bagels and bakery items fresh every day, have us sweep and mop like swabbies, and will always put on a pair of fresh gloves before preparing your food if you notify them of an allergy.

It’s just that… something about watching my peers drop handfuls of pulled chicken from a tub onto identical slices of bread has really killed my desire for those sandwiches. That’s all. More caveats, though: most food preparation involving meat freaks me out, and I would probably have this same reaction after being behind the line in any place where food is mass-produced. Nevertheless, if everyone was required to work in the food industry for a year, I do think people would begin to save a lot of money by cooking for themselves.

 

        Now, as my time at this blessed establishment has just drawn to a close, I'm feeling sentimental. I've said my goodbyes and used my final employee discount on a highly-customized grilled cheese sandwich. I definitely feel like a better person for having worked here for the short time I did. As with every experience, the lens through which I view life is a bit different coming out of the other side. 

19

The following was written on May 11, 2013, and posted to my old blog.

I’m still 19. I took a break from my final Art & Architecture essay to grab a coffee across the street. The air in the city was electric and sticky in anticipation of a coming storm.

I watched the wall across from my window grow darker through the slats of the shades. I filmed the first drops of rain hitting the glass, as though they too were something I’d be nostalgic for.

“I’m 19.” In the last few months, I’ve loved telling people that. Today I stood in front of the mirror and smiled and said it a few times. I tried saying, “I’m 20,” and felt sad. It doesn’t have the same ring to it. It doesn’t feel right. Can I invent twenteen?

A few minutes after the first rumbling of thunder, my roommate came back absolutely soaked. 

Grateful to no longer be alone, and pleasantly unable to ruminate over my impending transcendence due to the whir of her blow-drying her uggs, I tried to return to my essay.

Tomorrow, I will be 20. I will wake up into a new decade of my life. To tell you the truth, I feel 20 already. Maybe that’s a symptom of living in Manhattan for a while, of the forced independence and money woes. I feel heavy with the knowledge that even after I move back to Connecticut next week, this 20-year-old feeling won’t leave me. I won’t be able to go back.

I saw Hellogoodbye and Relient K last night, both of whom I started listening to when I was 12 or 13. It was the perfect concert to end this decade with, but I’m here blogging, so I guess it wasn’t enough of a catharsis to completely rid me of my teenaged angst. I’m trying to focus. I’m trying to remind myself that the best is yet to come. Ten years from now, when I’m curled up in a ball, freaking out about my thirties, I know fretting over this birthday is going to seem silly. The future is like this art essay I’m currently procrastinating: I have to write it myself, and the harder I work, the better it will be.

I'll always have a soft spot for the emo music I grew up loving, and the faded old Converse in my closet. This is my farewell to my teenage years, but not a farewell to who I’ve been and still am. 

From The Library

The following was written on February 27, 2013, and posted to my old blog. Consider it my first post on here! 

I’m sitting in the New York Public Library, in the room where the iconic scenes from Ghostbusters and The Day After Tomorrow were filmed. It’s pleasantly quiet, with nothing but the echoes of squeaking chairs. The lamps are gold and the chandeliers hold hundreds of bright bulbs. I’m ready to put myself out there and start new again.

I’ve been working on a couple of different projects, and I finally have one ready to show you. I’ve had to put my FILDI in overdrive, but with some help from Ze Frank and the support of my roommate and friends, I finally have a project finished to the point where I feel comfortable posting it for the world to see.

Here is my cover of the song Calloused by one of my favorite bands, Title Fight! My roommate and I filmed most of it in Washington Square Park, where there were more squirrels than people.

I’ll write more soon, but they just began turning the lights out in the library. Thanks for watching/reading!