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Weinstein Effect: Can We Separate the Art from the Artist?

Since The New York Times first revealed Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct, the floodgates have opened to similar claims against other famous, powerful men. Former United States’ President George H. W. Bush, House of Cards’ Kevin Spacey, Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick, U.S. Senator Al Franken, political writer Mark Halperin, and One Tree Hill’s Mark Schwahn are among over 30 high-profile individuals and celebrities that have faced backlash from multiple sexual assault allegations. Many are calling this movement the Weinstein Effect, a ripple effect that is motivating women—and in many cases men—to speak up against predators that had previously seemed too famous, and thus too powerful, to overthrow.

As a result of these allegations, Netflix has fired Kevin Spacey from House of Cards and cancelled the show altogether. Ordeal by Innocence, which was to be aired on BBC One and stars Ed Westwick, has been shelved until further notice. Some people have even called for a complete boycott of all works that Harvey Weinstein was ever a part of. While these allegations are serious and the perpetrators need to be reprimanded, the age-old question of Art vs. the Artist comes to the forefront.

Screenwriter and novelist Erik Tarloff outlines the uncomfortable truth that is being faced, “Great art is sometimes—perhaps often—made by very bad people, or people who harbor very ugly attitudes, or attitudes we now find abhorrent.” History is full of such examples.  Picasso was infamous for treating women terribly, even leading a few to take their own lives. Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot both held strongly anti-Semitic views. Celebrated singer David Bowie was accused of raping a teenage girl. The list goes on. It is true that the downfall of famous, powerful, and rarely confronted sexual offenders is important. Another consideration is that by cancelling shows completely, we unintentionally hurt hundreds of innocent employees that work on these projects.

Important questions then arise. Can we separate the artist from his or her work? Does watching their movies and listening to their music invariably mean supporting the artist and their actions? Psychology Professor Peggy Drexler argues otherwise. She posits that, “It is critical to remember that when we watch a film, view art or read a book, we’re doing so to be entertained and enriched,” and that “we’re not doing it to issue an endorsement of the human being whose work it is.”

But is it really so simple? In practice, it should bother us that by watching an artists’ work, even when we do not support that individual, they profit monetarily from our views, and become more famous.

Individuals like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey put us in an uncomfortable intellectual position. Many find their artistic work exhilarating, but their actions and personality repulsive. Can we support their work without supporting them? Perhaps it should come as no surprise that there is no clear answer to this dilemma. Being aware of this quandary while watching the emerging sexual scandals that involve artists whose work we follow and admire, is the least we can do.

Source: Creative Commons, Nessie Spencer

Author Sukhi Singh

Sukhi Singh is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto, who majored in Economics and Political Science. Sukhi's areas of interest include international development, human rights and policy analysis. Sukhi is a first year student at the Munk School of Global Affairs. She previously worked with a Toronto-based non-profit public policy firm that aims to bring equity to policy. She has also worked for a defence lawyer at the Supreme Court of India. Her career goals are to work within the international non-profit sector to promote human rights and social justice.

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