Canceled culture? Reconsidering the art of controversial artists

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

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Can we still laugh at the humor of comic Louis C.K., knowing he’s been accused of exposing himself to women he worked with?

“A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane and ill-advised. ‘Yeah, I’ll go out with you, alone, at night.’ ‘What are you, nuts?’ Men, we’re the number one threat to women!” 

What about this scene from one of Woody Allen’s earliest films, “Bananas”? 

Newsstand clerk: “How much is that copy of Orgasm?”
Woody: “Just put it in the bag, will you?”
Clerk: “Orgasm! This man wants to buy a copy! How much is it?”
Woody: “I’m doing a sociological study of perversion. I’m up to advanced child molesting.” 

Or this, from Allen’s “Manhattan,” with the 42-year-old lead character dating a 17-year-old? 

Woody: “I really want to see you a lot.”
Mariel Hemingway: “I like it when you get an uncontrollable urge.”
Woody: “Yeah, it’s my best feature – my boyish impetuosity.”

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Woody Allen plays a 42-year-old dating a teenager who has homework in “Manhattan” (1979). 

United Artists

Can we watch it now without thinking of the scandals in Allen’s own life? And how do we look at Pablo Picasso’s paintings the same way, knowing about his teenage mistress, and his reportedly abusive relationships with women?

As more and more painters, writers, musicians and filmmakers are unmasked as “bad actors,” we’re forced to reconsider their work.

“I think what we are trying to do in this world is hold people accountable for the harm that they do,” said Loretta Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College. “Because previously, only the powerful could punish the powerless, but now when anybody has a keyboard, they can become a critic.”

And a powerful one.  Ross said that calling out artists and performers on the internet hasn’t just shamed them; it has significantly damaged careers and reputations. Louis C.K. has been dropped by HBO, F/X and Netflix; Johnny Depp lost lucrative movie deals after a very public legal battle over domestic violence allegations; and ABC canceled TV star Roseanne Barr’s highly-rated television show after a tweet many considered racist.

Correspondent Erin Moriarty asked, “In some cases, doesn’t the call-out culture work, and work well?”

“It can work,” Ross said, “but does it achieve what you want, which is accountability? If you want to achieve punishment, it is actually a good device for just punishing people.”

But to some, like art critic Aruna D’Souza, any reckoning is long overdue. “I think that lots of artists are terrible people, because being an artist allowed for a kind of latitude of behavior that included things that today we find really offensive,” she said.

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CBS News

D’Souza believes that both artists and the institutions that show their work need to be held accountable – like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017, when a petition, signed by thousands, sharply criticized a Balthus exhibit with an eleven-year-old model in a sexually suggestive pose.

D’Souza asked, “Do we just keep going back to the same artists all the time, knowing that some have caused real pain in the world? Or do we take the opportunity of saying, ‘I’m going to put this person aside for a minute and I’m going to look at someone else’?”

Which is the reason D’Souza questions the CBS News profile of Woody Allen that is airing now on Paramount+.

She said, “If someone is there being interviewed, they’re given a kind of legitimacy just by the fact that they’re being interviewed on a big newscast.”

D’Souza suggests that, rather than featuring those with troubling personal lives, the media, and museums, should turn to new and overlooked artists.

Moriarty asked, “Would you not show the work of someone like Picasso because there are other artists not being recognized and you’re giving too much time to Picasso?” 

“Absolutely!” she replied.

But is looking away – or keeping others from seeing controversial work – the best answer?

Moriarty asked Richard Peña, who teaches film theory at Columbia University, “When you are choosing artists to study, do you ever even consider what kind of person that artist is?”

“Frankly, no,” he replied. “I used to work at the New York Film Festival, so I actually know some of these artists, and some of them aren’t people I’d particularly want to spend time with.

“We simply don’t know the history of all the artists that we show, artists whose work I know and love, and love to present to my students. But if we’re suddenly to discover some terrible fact about them, for me that would give me another way of looking at their work. I’m not sure it would make me not wanna look at their work.”

As long as it’s presented in context, there is a value, Peña said, in viewing and analyzing even the most problematic people and their films, like D.W. Griffith’s classic – and racist – 1915 film, “Birth of a Nation.”

Peña described it as “a piece of racist claptrap. Now because he’s the author of that, do we negate him from film studies? It would be impossible; his contribution was too huge. I think what we have to do, though, is always be aware of who D.W. Griffith was.”

Loretta Ross said, “We have to get away from this angel/devil view of humanity. We’re all complicated people, and we have to assume that the people whose art we admire are at least as complicated as we are.”

And cancelling films or television shows of complicated, even criminal artists, Ross said, can have unintended consequences.

“You’re talking about costing a lot of people their jobs, a lot of people who get harmed mainly because of the mistakes that one person can make,” she said. “I mean, let me be honest, I’d watch ‘The Cosby Show’ if they put it back on! I mean, ’cause that’s an ensemble case. And you don’t want to group-punish people because of one person’s bad acts.”

What is art, and what is objectionable, is often subjective, seen through the lens of our own experiences.

Ross said, “I have to honestly say I never saw ‘Gone With the Wind’ or ‘Birth of a Nation,’ because my community told me that those films were not going to be good for my soul. It was like watching a horror film when you aren’t into horror. Why would I do that?

Moriarty asked, “Is there any artist that you would say deserves being cancelled and called out?”

“Well, I heard that Hitler was an artist, and I wouldn’t be bidding on his paintings!” she laughed. “But again, it’s about people’s ability to, not separate the art from the artist, but conceptualize the art with the artist. We’re not clones. We’re supposed to disagree. That’s what a pluralistic society does. But what we’re not supposed to do is dispose of each other because we disagree.”

     
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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Steven Tyler.

      
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Cancel Culture

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