Words by: Ruby Ellam Art by: Carla J. Romana
I have a startling confession: I do not think the author is dead.
Quick! Art school, come take my degree away; banish me from my Masters and into a world of sappy non-intellectuals that cannot separate the art from the artist. I’ll go — albeit unwillingly — to wherever those who are too emotional and too sensitive for real progress go… I’m assuming Instagram? Someone check that for me, please.
Yes, despite all my training, the questionable practice of celebrating bad people on the world stage is something I still can’t feign a comfortable ignorance for. I can’t agree that talent trumps everything, because (again, this may be blasphemous) I do not believe there is such a thing as untouchable artistic freedom. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most people in my art classes were middle-class or above, predominantly from major cities, and highly educated. Is it true that they were all just naturally more talented than the lower-class individuals like me? No, not at all.
I have yet another confession: I do not practise what I preach. I’m a near-daily listener of Lana Del Rey despite her recent and problematic ‘question for the culture’; she defended the perceived glamorisation of violent and toxic relationships in her songs, while calling out women of colour who otherwise had no impact on her point. I adore the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, which has since been admonished for its negative influence on society’s impression of transgender people (despite the filmmakers’ attempts to distinguish the villain as not a ‘real’ transgender woman). I loved the TV series Girls despite showrunner Lena Dunham’s white feminism.
And in this hypocrisy, I’m not the only one. Chris Brown recently surpassed Elvis Presley as the most decorated male artist on the Billboard Hot 100, despite a history of abuse towards women and a slieu of homophobic, sexist Twitter rants punctuating his career of nearly two decades. And with Baz Luhrmann’s new film, Elvis, it seems we continue to rewrite the legacy of those who have passed away; the surpassed ‘King’ had his own history of relationships with underage women.
But how can we justify separating the artist from their art without ignoring their immoral, and sometimes illegal, behaviours? Or do we take these transgressions as a given in exchange for art? Sure, men in Hollywood are gross — way to state the obvious! Do we grin and bear it, while letting the justice system weed out those who break the law and hoping we can count on the public to react accordingly?
There’s also an element of gender that has to be considered when breaking down these ideas. Before ‘cancel culture’ was a media buzzword, Sinead O’Connor was blacklisted for her controversial performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992. In it, she targeted the abuse concealed by the Catholic Church — a topic we have since deemed non-taboo. Yoko Ono and Courtney Love were blamed for the turbulent lives and deaths of their superstar partners, derision that is still thriving in the age of Twitter threads and TikTok conspiracy videos. Love was a talented musician in her own right and had built a promising acting career in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but she was quickly excluded from role considerations after her vocal admonishment of a famous producer. She infamously advised up-and-coming actresses:
“If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party at the Four Seasons, don’t go.”
In the years since this quote ‘cancelled’ her acting career, we’ve seen that she was undoubtedly correct. Even today, ‘unlikeable’ or ‘annoying’ women are consistently subjected to death threats online — whereas men can be dragged through the courthouse for their abusive behaviour and still be heralded as a king (but let’s not talk about Johnny Depp). Maybe ‘cancel culture’ is just a simple means of cutting down unlikeable women and criminal men.
So, can you like anything nowadays? Yes… and no. It really comes down to who you can justify financially supporting or providing a platform to. If you call yourself any sort of ally or activist, you must weigh up your intention and values with your desire to listen to certain music or watch a certain show.
Or, if all else fails, just wait for them to die. Your ‘problematic fave’ could become an instant legend post-mortem! Just ask Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Alfred Hitchcock, Henry Ford, James Brown, John Wayne, Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin… after all, they surely won’t come back to haunt you.