Cancel Culture: Can art really be separated from the artist?
“I have assumed as axiomatic that a creation, a work of art, is autonomous.” – T.S. Eliot
Cancel Culture. It is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days, especially if you have ever visited the dark void that social media has become. Netflix specials are kicked into oblivion when Twitter sleuths find a five-year-old tweet made by the show’s creator. The “art and artist” debate has been around for a while and it isn’t going away anytime soon. As discerning individuals who are capable of moral and intellectual examinations of cultural phenomenons, where do we draw the line?
I recently finished reading French modernist Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s seminal novel Journey to the End of the Night and I was struck by his natural irreverence, the casually poignant symbolism of widespread decay and the incessant black humour. When I tried to research more about the life of this mythical writer who had taken my hand and shown me incalculable beauty in the depths of human depravity, I was bombarded with articles about Céline’s fascist sympathies and his anti-semitic views. To be fair, Céline never hid the fact that he was an asshole even while writing the novel but there has to be a distinct divide between the realm of fiction and the gravity of real-world actions. Despite condemning his beliefs, I still wanted to read more of his novels because they have had an undeniably formative influence on literary sensibilities. In order to do that, one has to separate the writer from the man, the art from the artist. This is not a new school of thought, by any means. New criticism of this kind has been around since the last century but the most relevant example of such an ideological stand is probably Roland Barthes’ powerful 1967 essay The Death of the Author in which he writes:
“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text.”
Postmodern theorists argue that it is disingenuous to read/watch/listen to art while taking into account what the artist wanted the viewer to think. Doing so reduces art to a didactic process where you are told what to think and how to feel by the creator. If art is meant to change people’s lives, it has to belong to the audience. That does not absolve artists of their responsibilities, however. They should still be held to the same moral standards as everyone else but because of their position as public figures, proponents of Cancel Culture often subject them to unrealistic expectations. Of course, nobody can deny that there are some serious offenders who have been rightly struck down by conscientious internet activists. I can understand why people would want to boycott the works of rapists and racists. The problem with blindly advocating Cancel Culture is that the internet isn’t always right and that not all crimes have the same severity. It takes only a few hours for internet users to organise mass mobilisations against allegations and accusations. Countless vigilantes descend upon the targeted profiles, decrying everything the offender has ever done. In those vicious echo-chambers, nobody stops to verify the claims or to ponder over the philosophical implications of their actions. They are out for blood.
Professor Stanley Fish, an American scholar, rightly noted that there are examples when the art and the artist are undoubtedly connected. Woody Allen is the perfect example because Woody Allen films are about Woody Allen. There’s no getting around that. Although Allen has been cleared by the legal institutions that investigated him in regards to abuse claims made by his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow, newer audiences continue to associate the problematic depiction of underage girls in his works like Manhattan with statements about his character. On the other hand, there is Roman Polanski. While guest editing the French edition of Vogue in 1977, the director preyed upon a 13-year old girl and persuaded her to participate in multiple photoshoots. During the second shoot at Jack Nicholson’s house, he incapacitated the minor with champagne and half a Quaalude before sexually violating her multiple times. Polanski became a fugitive and fled to France in order to avoid facing charges. Since then, he has lived the life of a criminal in exile and has avoided travelling to countries where it is possible for him to be extradited back to the US. Cancel Culture has subjected both filmmakers to the same kind of ostracisation, not really caring to figure out the difference. Even if we dismiss the aforementioned cases as acts of premature activism, there is a darker side to the inherent mob mentality that Cancel Culture espouses. Assuming that we are not talking about universally condemnable views, do we have the right to curtail someone else’s freedom of creative expression if we do not agree with them?
Last year, armchair revolutionaries furiously typed out their 280-characters long scholarly theses on Todd Phillips’ Joker and how it glorified “toxic masculinity”. They claimed that Joker should not be “allowed” to be seen, citing the dangerous potential to create school shooters and bombers. People had similar criticisms about Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver because it inspired a real-life murder but, on the flip side, it also moved countless other viewers and influenced their respective creative sensibilities. It is fine if someone does not want to watch or read a piece of work because they do not agree with the expressed views but attempting to prevent others from doing the same is nothing less than authoritarian censorship and it should be condemned as such. Earlier this year, Dana Schwartz criticised the cult-favourite series South Park for its cynicism. When online trolls harassed her, she wrote, “I didn’t call for South Park to be cancelled. I didn’t even say I hated the show! But the nuances of my point didn’t matter.” That’s exactly the point, Miss Schwartz. You generalised the artistic statement of a show that has 23 seasons in a 34-word post on social media without taking into account any of South Park’s nuances or its profound philosophical maturity. You never looked past the scatological jokes. As for getting South Park cancelled, the show’s creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been tweeting out #cancelsouthpark since 2018.
It is exigent that we re-evaluate how we choose to respond to these internet “events” because they are increasingly becoming a bigger part of our lives, impacting our liberty in deciding what our experiences should mean. Sweeping declarations calling for censorship or furious responses in defence of rapists will no longer work, they will only contribute to the extremely divisive nature of social media platforms. I acknowledge the imperative to hold public figures accountable for their wrongdoings but pretending that a culturally and/or aesthetically significant work of art has suddenly lost all its artistic merit because the artist turned out to be a shitty person is nothing short of intellectual dishonesty and pompous hypocrisy.