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.