In light of the recent allegations of predatory sexual behaviour made against Kevin Spacey, amongst the many issues that have arisen is the question of: Is it ok for fans to still enjoy Spacey’s work in House of Cards?
Sadly, the revelation that a ‘Great Artist’ is in fact an awful person is nothing new. The German composer Wagner was a vehement anti-Semite who believed that ‘Jewish people were incapable of artistic expression’. The poet Ezra Pound was also known to be an anti-Semite, as well as a supporter of fascism. Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Ernest Hemmingway are also celebrated authors who had a few skeletons in their closets, to put it lightly. There were plenty of huge rock stars of the 70s who definitely sexually exploited underaged groupies. Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are award-winning directors who have both been accused of sexually abusing minors.
A huge number of people we laud as ‘geniuses’ were more than likely despicable people, and yet we can objectively acknowledge that the ‘genius’ of their work still stands. There is no reason to believe that artistic ability is linked to a person’s morality and therefore we should be able to praise a piece of art for its merits while acknowledging the flaws of the artist as a person. However, while for artists who are no longer alive we can more easily separate the ‘artist’ from the ‘art’, it’s not quite the same when it comes to artists of our own day and age.
Part of what makes this such a complex issue is when you take into account whether or not to support an artist through buying their work and going to their events. You might be able to appreciate the work in spite of the artist’s transgressions, but whether or not you want to make a financial contribution to the artist is its own moral dilemma.
The aspect of ‘Fame’ is something which makes this even more of a murky issue. When somebody’s status as a celebrity seems to safeguard them from ever facing the consequences of their crimes. It’s important not to ignore that the power afforded to celebrities like Spacey is in part what enables them to commit these sorts of crimes in the first place. With this in mind you can certainly make the argument that once these accusations emerge we should no longer contribute to maintaining an artist’s celebrity status by supporting their work.
It’s an issue without an easy ‘one-size fits all’ answer. In some instances we can forgive an artist for having certain views which may be outdated by today’s standard, but would’ve been the norm during their lifetime. Equally, do we feel that “They weren’t perfect, but who is? Maybe we don’t have the whole story, so who am I to judge?’. Each of us may be more or less affected by any particular issue depending on our own life experiences. Somebody who is Jewish may find it more difficult enjoying the works of a poet like Ezra Pound being aware of the artist’s anti-Semitism compared to someone who has never faced anti-Semitism first hand. Similarly, survivors of sexual abuse may have a much harder time detaching an accused artist from their work.
The type of art in question and the extent to which the artist features in it also affects how easily we can detach the disgraced artist from their work. Some may have no problem listening to a composition by Wagner because Wagner and his anti-Semitism aren’t necessarily present in the work; but watching Kevin Spacey himself performing on-screen might mean that the ‘artist’ and the ‘artwork’ are inextricably linked to one another.
It goes without saying that anyone who commits a crime should be held to the same laws as the rest of society and ‘artistic success’ and ‘fame’ should never equate to a ‘free pass’, but sadly this is something that is essentially out of the audience’s control we can only hope that the authorities act and prosecute artists accordingly.
I stand in no position to tell someone not to appreciate Kevin Spacey’s success as an actor in House of Cards or any of his films because of his failings as human being. At the same time, it’s not my place to say, “Just get over it and enjoy the art for what it is”. My only advice is that if it feels wrong, then you have every right not to engage with that artist’s work. At the end of the day whether or not to enjoy a disgraced artist’s work is a personal decision we have to come to on our own terms.
(Images courtesy of Indiewire and Nobel Prize)