I find myself increasingly alarmed at the mentality of those who sanctimoniously demand we censor or “cancel” certain music, books, films, and so forth, based on the attitudes, opinions, behaviour, or crimes of the artists responsible (whether said crimes are proved or not). Leaving aside the obviously sinister Orwellian overtones in “cancelling” anyone or anything, I believe in the old-fashioned, un-trendy importance of separating art from artist.
For example, I think it is entirely possible to praise and enjoy the considerable artistic merits of a film like Chinatown, whilst not condoning actions in the director’s personal life. Besides, to attribute that entire film to Roman Polanksi is itself misguided, as it ignores the remarkable acting talents of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and so on, not to mention the stunning screenplay by Robert Towne (often cited as the greatest screenplay of all time, alongside that of Casablanca). Then there are the contributions of the rest of the cast and crew, and their involvement in a classic film that they should definitely be proud of.
The same argument applies to music. For example, I refuse to stop listening to Michael Jackson just because it is alleged he was involved in child abuse. Those allegations are not proved, but even if they were, would it make the music any less great? I refuse to accept the premise that listening to Michael Jackson’s songs somehow amounts to condoning child abuse.
Finding it difficult to be dispassionate about separating art from artist can come from a place of good intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this boycott argument is nothing new. For instance, I’ve met people who refuse to listen to Wagner because of his notorious anti-Semitism. Obviously if they don’t wish to do so, then that is their decision (as Woody Allen – himself a target of “cancel” culture these days – once said, “I can’t listen to Wagner without getting the urge to invade Poland”). But what I find particularly galling are those thought police that insist we all, for our own good, kowtow to such views. To make doctrines out of these kinds of personal convictions, and then inflict them on the population at large, goes against one of my most fundamental beliefs in freedom of choice.
A question I would put to those who advocate this position: How far do you take this argument? Should we not view any film with Harvey Weinstein’s name on the credits? Should we duly throw out and burn our copies of The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, The Artist, Paddington, Good Will Hunting, much of Quentin Tarantino’s back catalogue, and so on? What about if someone else involved in the film is revealed to have committed similar appalling acts? How “high up” in the credits would they need to be for it to be a problem? Director? Producer? Cinematographer? Music composer? Editor? Key grip? Production Assistant?
Countless novelists, poets, playwrights, directors, painters, sculptors, and so on (from past and present) would fall foul under such a vehement “cancel” culture. I do accept that in some cases, where artists are still living, people may want to vote with their wallet and make sure their money doesn’t go to supporting their work. But even then there is all too often a knee-jerk reaction. For example, last year’s film Joker featured a track from convicted paedophile Gary Glitter. Some were outraged, claiming he would receive royalties. In fact, the track had since been bought out by a different company, and licenced directly from them. The music was a perfect artistic choice for that moment in the film, and worked brilliantly.
In conclusion, great artists sometimes do horrible things. Enjoying their art doesn’t equate to condoning their actions. With that thought, I’m going to go forth and give Chinatown another watch.