Separating the Art From the Artist Can Be Difficult

In 1924, Charlie Chaplin married 15-year-old Lita Grey. Chaplin, who was 35, had recently had sex with the minor, which under California law was considered statutory rape. According to the Mirror, once he realized Grey was pregnant, he quickly married her in Mexico in order to avoid jail time, but the marriage only lasted three years. According to the divorce settlement, Grey was awarded £557,000, £8 million today, due to “revolting” and “inhumane” treatment from the star. Today, popular culture has turned a blind eye to these facts and, instead, remembers him for “The Kid” and “The Great Dictator.”

     Today, the #MeToo Movement has led audiences to reexamine actors, directors and films that were once considered film canon. One can no longer simply listen to music or view a piece of art without a careful scrutiny into the creator’s background. When watching Louis C.K. perform stand up or Danny Masterson in “That ‘70s Show,” the viewer must now attempt to make amends with the accusations against the comedians. But this asks the question, Can we really separate the artist from the art? Or should we even try?

     The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was able to overlook director Roman Polanski’s rape of a 13-year-old girl. According to Rolling Stone, after giving Samantha Geimer a Quaalude, Polanski raped Geimer in the home of Jack Nicholson and then girlfriend Anjelica Huston. In 1977, Polanski was arrested and charged on six criminal counts and later plead guilty to the least serious one.  Polanski, who had previously directed films such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” only served 42 days of the 90-day ordered sentence before leaving the country for France. Polanski currently only resides in countries that won’t extradite him to the United States: France, Switzerland and Poland. This did not stop the Academy Awards from honoring him with Best Director in 2003 for “The Pianist.” The Academy Awards honored a convicted rapist, who because he did not finish his sentence, was not allowed to attend the ceremony in California.

     When looking at “The Cosby Show,” one must also acknowledge the impact it had on race relations.  According to the BBC, “The Cosby Show” “quietly cracked open the door to change; both the way black people are perceived by others and how black people view themselves.” While Bill Cosby may no longer hold a positive place in popular culture, it cannot be argued that the effect of the “The Cosby Show” can still be shown in shows like “Black-ish.” However, this does not compensate for Cosby’s crimes. The biggest problem with watching “The Cosby Show” after the accusations is the position of Cosby within the show. Cliff Huxtable is portrayed as the fathering figure that everyone respects, complete with goofy sweaters and “dad jokes.” He was the voice of reason in the family, sometimes disciplinarian, sometimes lighthearted, but “The Cosby Show” taught family values to young children, and that’s the problem. We were supposed to look up to Bill Cosby, not hear his victim’s stories.  

     Conversely, when sentencing Kevin Spacey, we need to examine the roles that he played. In “American Beauty,” he is the creepy father who fantasizes about his daughter’s friend. Given what we now know, it is easier to watch Spacey in this role than Bill Cosby as a role model in “The Cosby Show.” Interestingly, according to The Washington Post, Spacey’s newest film, “Billionaire Boys Club,” made $618 opening weekend. Opposed to the millions usually garnered by an actor of Spacey’s standing. Spacey plays a bit part in the film, which also stars Ansel Elgort and Taron Egerton. However, this did not stop viewers from boycotting the film and refusing to further cushion Spacey’s wallet.

     In a now infamous tweet from Spacey on Oct. 29, 2017, Spacey acknowledged that, although he does not remember actor Anthony Rapp’s allegations, he is deeply sorry for any behavior that might have affected Rapp. This statement was followed by Spacey coming out as gay. It seemed Spacey was more apologetic about not coming out as gay sooner than about making sexual advances toward Rapp when he was a minor. While Spacey’s characters are in keeping with Spacey’s real life actions, this does not negate his role in hurting Rapp and his 12 other accusers. Nor is it a good opportunity to come out as gay.  

     Actress Asia Argento was one of the first women to come out against Harvey Weinstein, becoming one of the faces of the #MeToo Movement. This contrasts sharply with her own crime against now 22-year-old actor Jimmy Bennett. According to The New York Times, months after accusing Weinstein, Argento was paying a $380,000 settlement to Bennett over sexual assault claims. Bennett and Argento met in 2004, when the 7-year-old Bennett was cast in “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” which starred and was directed by the 27-year-old Argento.  

     In 2013, when Bennett was 17 years old, he claims she sexually assaulted him in a hotel room. While this information should not invalidate the #MeToo Movement, as some publications have considered, it should invalidate Argento, as a director, actor and activist.

     The fallout from the #MeToo Movement has left some questioning their own responsibility in watching films from known sexual abusers. Although refraining from all work from known abusers hurts not only the abusers but also those who also worked on the project, a viewer has the moral obligation to understand the media they are consuming. Bill Cosby and “The Cosby Show” helped put a picture of black America that was wholesome and progressive, however, that doesn’t mean that Cosby should still be allowed to be seen as everyone’s favorite dad-—Cliff Huxtable. Kevin Spacey excused himself by coming out as gay, Asia Argento was a leader for the very people she hurt and Roman Polanski was even celebrated after being accused.   

     By continuing to watch these movies and TV shows, a viewer is inadvertently supporting the abuser and belittling the victim. Some of the cases that have come forward are past the statute of limitations, some of the abusers cannot be extradited and some involve lengthy and costly legal battles. Therefore, sometimes, the only consequence that can be imposed on the artist is a boycott of their work. A sort of vigilante justice system that shows the abusers their actions are not okay. We can reason with ourselves that the artist is not the same as their work, or that it happened a long time ago, or even that the artist is remorseful, but that does not mean we should.