There have been several instances lately of works of art and media being torn down or otherwise endangered because of association with an artist who did or said something negative. I’ve decided to explore this issue in two parts, first looking at the production side with those who create or perform the media, and then looking at the consumers of that media, a.k.a. fandoms.
I started thinking about this topic after seeing a tweet with a link to a book of interviews with Ray Bradbury. The tweet says: “I loved Ray Bradbury when I was a kid, but I read this 1994 interview when I was in college and I don’t think I’ve been able to enjoy a single word of his since.”
It saddened me to think that an author whose works I really enjoy held (or at least publicly stated) views that range from sadly backward to pretty horrid. We all want the people who make things we enjoy to hold the same views and values that we do, and to live up to our own paragon of expectations. (More often than not, every idol falls short of that.) But it also irked me a bit to think that an entire body of excellent work is at risk of being disregarded. Not based on the quality of the work in its own right, but on the personal life of the creator. It not only casts a pall over classic work long set in stone, but also puts currently evolving works in jeopardy.
So, to what degree should we judge a piece of art by the personal views or stances of a creator or some of the creators connected to it? If there are several creators, as is the case with movies, TV shows, and some print media, how is that “ownership” divided? And what happens to that art when a creator or creators become associated with something negative, unsavory, or even criminal? And how long should that association persist?
It can be difficult to separate the two, especially if the work is a novel and written in first person. It’s easy to assume that what the characters are saying or doing are the things that the author agrees with or approves of. With film, it’s easy to assume that the traits presented by a character are part of the actor or that the actor’s personal beliefs bleed into the character they play. Sometimes this is so, but other times it isn’t. It’s easier for creators to have characters do things they personally like or agree with, but that can’t always happen or isn’t always the most interesting way for a story to progress. And when an artist does or says something that is horrible or offensive, it’s hard not to have that reaction color one’s perception of their work, even ones previously beloved. (This is why I try not to learn too much about idols; eventually something nasty comes out and that just makes everything awkward.)
But should we condemn a book that is objectively good because the author was racist or homophobic? Should we refuse to air episodes of a TV series that feature a disgraced actor? Should someone be fired for something they said years ago, even if there is no evidence that they have said or done anything bad in connection with it since then? What punishment fits which crime? How far does punishment go? What does it include? And how recent does the offense have to be in order to apply?
Some unsavory behavior is recent and results in near-instant censure, like when Lori Loughlin was fired from the Hallmark series When Calls the Heart for being part of the recent college admissions scandal. Others took place years and years ago, like the vulgar jokes posted on Twitter that led to James Gunn being fired from Marvel. (Fortunately for the future Guardians of the Galaxy 3 film, Marvel did decide to reverse that decision). Some are irritants that have gone on in the realm of public knowledge for decades: Orson Scott Card has been persona non grata with many people due to his stance against homosexuality.
I’m not saying that everyone should love these people or their work. If you don’t like the art for its own sake, that’s fine. If you like the art, but don’t like the artist, that’s fine. If you like, or dislike, both or even some of each, that’s also fine. We can show our support or displeasure by choosing what media to consume when, where, how, and from whom. We can express how we feel.
But I’m curious about consequences of unrestrained and immediate censure, and how we can strike a balance between the “crime” and the appropriate punishment. After all, some of these “crimes” actually break the law, while others fall along the spectrum from inappropriate or in poor taste to outright prejudice. Social censure is a powerful and devastating weapon, and I feel that sometimes it gets employed way too freely and quickly (or at least too loudly) in these days of internet outrage. It seems like it’s become less of a concern for morality and fair treatment and more like a virtual blood sport.