Is it possible to separate art from the artist who created it? Be it a book, a song, a movie, or whatever format we choose, does there come a point where the personal flaws or actions of the artist overwhelm any benefit of what they have created?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately as scandal after scandal erupts. And while I'm very much in agreement that we should mourn the art which was never created, I don't think it diminishes the message to also mourn the art which is now tainted by its creators.
Sometimes, the connections are clear. Orson Scott Card wove his homophobic beliefs into his Ender books, even including a "cured" homosexual as a secondary character who spouted the great benefits of having married to someone of the opposite sex and expecting a baby. I read the book before I knew about his personal opinions and I found the scene distasteful and misguided at first, but when I realized it was a deliberate message, it sickened me. (I am generally inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt and want to make sure they've done what they're accused of before condemning them.)
Sometimes the connections are less clear. When the media reported that Chris Brown had beaten Rihanna, I had a few songs of his in my collection. None of them advocated violence and none of them had what I would consider offensive lyrics. But I still felt a moral obligation to remove them from my active playlists. His actions were so repugnant that I felt I needed to register my displeasure in the only way open to be as a consumer, by not consuming.
Now the list of men who have been consistent sexual predators and harassers is growing and I find myself having to make the same decisions. What creations will I set aside to vanish into memory rather than sharing with my children and friends?
I've heard the arguments on all sides: that art is separate from its creator and if it speaks to someone, it doesn't matter if the person hid a criminal act; that instead of focusing on the art which is tainted, we should be mourning the art which was never created; that to focus on one person when hundreds worked together to create something is unfair on those who did nothing wrong; and that the public has a moral responsibility to act to ensure that the predators face consequences because as long as the public is willing to buy, the institutions will turn a blind eye.
I'll admit, it does trouble me to have to make such decisions in the heat of the moment, before the facts can be properly known. In cases of reported sexual harassment or assault, my default is to believe because it is so rare to have a false accusation. And yet I am aware of the dangers of automatic responses, because there are people out there who will take advantage of social movements and use them as political weapons against their enemies. As much as we long for simple, emotionally satisfying solutions where it's easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, life is not that simple.
I believe that one of the reasons why the idea of boycotting art to punish the artist is so popular is that we don't have faith in the actual justice system. If we believed that police and the courts were able to determine the truth of every accusation and that those who have been assaulted will be able to come forward and see justice done, I don't think we'd feel as strong a need to take matters into our own hands. We do it as a form of social pressure, to say "This is not acceptable to us" because the authorities have a habit of downplaying and disbelieving rather than going against cultural icons or socially powerful figures. It's a way to support the survivors by evening the playing field.
I think it also has something to do with how recent the impact of the artist's actions were. Historical records make it fairly clear that Beethoven was a real SOB, but his music is still transcendently passionate. Since he's long dead, I'm not as concerned about supporting him by buying or listening to his music. When Michael Jackson died, I noticed that his songs came out of radio retirement, marking a return after over a decade of accusations and suspicions. Bram Stoker was a misogynist of the first order, but I still enjoy a good Dracula story.
In the end, it's something that everyone has to decide for themselves. Can I set aside an association that is personally distasteful and upsetting in order to enjoy a creation? Sometimes the answer will be yes, but more and more often, I'm finding that it is no.