The Art of Monstrous Men

CN sexual assault

In a poignant piece about reconciling enjoyment of art when the producer of that art is known to be morally or criminally suspect Claire Dederer has really gotten to the meat of the issue. While she doesn’t end up giving us a definitive answer to whether we should embrace the art while separating the artist from it her questions, reflections, and insights might reflect the contemporary zeitgeist for reparative (and possibly preventative) justice.

Contrast that with Caroline Framke’s exhortation to “mourn the work we lost from their victims” rather than “mourning great art tainted by awful men” which began as a tweet about a month ago:

Famke does end the piece stating you can both, which puts into question our tendency to dichotomize issues into mutually exclusive practical actions.

Many of the men accused of doing terrible things have made some meaningful art, or at least inspired others who did. It’s difficult to ignore those contributions, sometimes impossible when considering the larger canon.

But if you do want to mourn the loss of the esteem you had for a certain piece of work because its creator might be a horrible person, all I ask is that you also mourn what’s been lost as a result of his behavior, and fight to improve the broken system that let him get away with it.

And as far as things that are actionable are concerned, Kevin Smith’s situation regarding his work and its ties to Harvey Weinstein illustrates the complexity of the economic ties. Smith brings up the fact that he can’t give back all the money made from his films from 20 years ago, but he can give the residuals from all his films made which are in any way attached to Weinstein to the nonprofit Women in Film.

Problem is, with Weinstein’s fall from grace, there’s the possibility that those properties will become devalued and the residuals will be worth next to nothing. Smith says in that case he will donate $2000 a month to Women in Film.

Personal Responsibility, Distributive Culpability, and Reparations

In another life, I would have quit music and gone onto studying comparative neurocognition primarily because I’ve always been interested in how we reason and the different ways that culture can shape how we think. While I no longer consume the relevant literature as rapaciously as I did when I almost made the career jump, I still manage to keep up with current research. One of the things I’d been exploring is the idea of Distributive Culpability.

We tend to be terrible at statistical reasoning and the idea that aggregate behavior can cause distributive effects within a population would be just as difficult for us to understand. With the consumption of any form of mass media, especially with popular products, we have aggregate behavior effects. With Kevin Smith, he had a direct tie of benefit from Harvey Weinstein, so his response to what he believed was an undeserved benefit is to give back for his role in creating an environment where Weinstein can benefit from his sexual predation. Smith wasn’t directly responsible for Weinstein’s behavior, but his actions and associations helped to shape an environment that allowed Weinstein to do what did. Smith’s response was to take personal responsibility for that and make reparations.

From a consumer standpoint, every single person that went to see a film tied to Weinstein; bought a DVD of a film or related licensed merchandise tied to Weinstein; or, by word of mouth, lavished praises on films tied to Weinstein, has contributed to a network of aggregate behavior which helped to create an environment that allowed him to do those things. Similarly from the producer standpoint–all the industries (Marketing, Film Studios, Media) are distributively culpable for the environment that facilitated the actions of Weinstein and others like him. The question is, what is the appropriate way to acknowledge their responsibility in creating the permissive environment that allows sexual predators to think they have the right of access to others’ bodies?

Boycotts are one way that consumers can do this. The #MeToo movement is another way to do it by word of mouth. Industries have ways of addressing issues like this. And there are legal means for the victims (though that recourse is fraught with so many other issues as the #MeToo movement is helping to bring to light). In the end, though–the whole point of doing any of these things is to make sure sexual predators no longer have a permissive environment; to make sure they understand that their position of power (and privilege) doesn’t extend to the rights of the bodies of others; and to make sure they cannot profit either economically, or politically while committing sexual violence.

Most importantly, though, is making sure that women (and other victims of any or no gender) never have to feel like this (from Framke’s piece):

Annabella Sciorra, who says Weinstein raped her in the early 1990s, says she couldn’t find work for years afterward. “I just kept getting this pushback of ‘We heard you were difficult; we heard this or that,’’ she told journalist Ronan Farrow. Rosie Perez, Sciorra’s peer and friend, recalled the confusion she’d felt over what was going on with Sciorra’s career before she learned about the attack. “It made no sense,” Perez said. “Why did this woman, who was so talented, and riding so high, doing hit after hit, then all of a sudden fall off the map?”

I think Smith understands all this and is taking personal responsibility for his part in creating that climate; his actions will directly benefit the most frequent victims in the industry in which he works. I think Framke understands that, from the consumer side, we need to stop giving our aggregate support to Monstrous Men and stop being distributively culpable for their behavior. If these were typical response rather than being extraordinary ones maybe we wouldn’t have an industry that constantly centers the White Male experience and privileges White Male directors and producers.

As for how we as consumers can take responsibility for it, until we know otherwise, there’s plenty of other works out there if we chose to actively look–and if the environment changes, there will be even more since ownership of others’ bodies will no longer be a gatekeeping mechanism for entry into industries. As I work on Decolonizing the Musical Mind, these issues help to inform me on how I can do the same with music of the underrepresented and marginalized minorities here in the US.


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