Whether it’s Benedict Cumberbatch comparing his role as the monster in Frankenstein to autistic children or Amy Poehler undermining the significance of eating disorders in a recent interview – there’s a very high probability that at least some (read: most) of your favourite celebrities are problematic in some way. The Tumblr page – ‘Your Fave is Problematic’ – conveniently exists to remind us that Hollywood is full of flawed people; you can easily access their archive, which currently lists 76 celebrity names and counting.
Never has public awareness been more focused on public figure transgressions as it has been in 2018; the #MeToo movement alone has exposed a staggering number of instances of sexual abuse both among celebrities and politicians. While this signifies important strides in holding powerful people accountable for their actions, this also creates a dilemma for us – the consumers. Do you think “American Beauty” is a cinematic masterpiece? Well now you’ll think twice before bringing it up because it turns out Kevin Spacey (allegedly) sexually assaulted someone in 1992. By enjoying Kevin Spacey’s work, you are now at risk of being perceived as implicitly supporting (or at least forgiving) his actions after the cameras stop rolling.
I am by no means suggesting that these allegations are not serious nor am I trying to undermine the importance of making sure Kevin Spacey (and others like him) face the consequences of their actions. But I would like to make a different suggestion: bad people can make good art.
Moreover, it is a relatively recent concept to see an artist’s personal life and their art as morally inseparable. For decades, we have displayed the works of Picasso in national galleries across the world. Picasso – a known misogynist – famous for once saying: ‘for me, there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats’. And yet, when we look at his works, it makes us feel something. Something other than anger at Picasso’s misogyny and sexism.
On a similar note, Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ is a widely accepted literary classic, often included in the school curriculum, and yet the central plot of the book is basically about the sexual abuse of a minor where we are encouraged to sympathise with the protagonist abuser. Problematic? Yes. A great piece of literature? Yes. The two are not necessarily mutually-exclusive.
Perhaps there is an argument to be made about the emotional distance that time can create. Picasso died in 1973, while Kevin Spacey is still very much alive. We seem to be more forgiving when it comes to events that happened a while ago, often justifying it as ‘a different time’. If someone was a slave owner in the 19th century, that has a different moral resonance than if we found out someone was engaged in human trafficking in the 21st century. But should it be? Arguably, both of these scenarios hold the same moral weight, but time does make us more forgiving.
The important question is why do we put these people on a moral pedestal in the first place? Artists/actors/singers/writers are all humans, like the rest of us. And they are capable of producing beautiful, moving pieces of art but equally capable of doing abhorrent things. So next time you want to watch some old episodes of ‘House of Cards’ – do so, because aesthetic merit does not and should not rely on morality.