Art/ist: Validating the Blur

Sean Penn. Michael Fassbender. Charlie Sheen. Chris Brown. Woody Allen. Roman Polanski. Terry Richardson. John Lennon. R. Kelly.

These are just a few names of famous men who have been linked to or have been alleged to have committed incidents sexual assault, sexual contact with minors and physical violence against women. These are the ones that came off the top of my head; I am certain that there are many many more out there.

This isn’t a new question of course. It’s as old as time eternal, that desire, that impulse, to separate the art from the artist. Can we? Should we? What happens when we don’t – do we just allow them to continue to accumulate fame, wealth, awards, acclaim, to be propped up by sympathetic industries who forgive their sins without question? Or do we acquiesce to their misdeeds by not questioning them, by continuing to listen to their music/watch their films/look at their photographs?

Or, as Drew Millard from VICE puts it:

Do we give people who do bad things a pass just because they’re talented?


A few weeks ago, the lead singer of a band I liked when I was growing up, was convicted of the rape and assault of young children, and was recently imprisoned. I read a few news articles about the case – about the reaction in the popular presses, about HMV (a chain of music stores in the UK)’s decision not to carry the albums of the band, about the case itself. The case itself continues to horrify me. I haven’t listened to the band for a long time now, but they were somewhat of a mainstay when I was 14. I’m back home now in my childhood bedroom, which, during my teenage years, I wrote on the walls all of the bands I liked. I was relieved to see when I got home yesterday that the name of this band wasn’t there.


In one of our classes, Professor Parham spoke about “validating the blur”. This blur is what we live in. This goes beyond loving flawed cultural texts. This is real – real life in which people are hurt by the actions of cultural producers. Is this all about capital – as Amanda Hess argues in Slate, because these people are too influential and important, to otherwise ignore? I think that’s part of it. But it’s more too – it’s about acknowledging our own complicity within the actions of others. These men committed, no doubt continue to commit, acts of violence against women and girls because they live in a society that gives them permission to do so. The very power of their celebrity confers on them  a special status that is protected no matter what. That’s why Roman Polanski, convicted fugitive rapist, wins an Academy Award and has Harrison Ford pick it up for him as he cannot attend the ceremony. That’s why Jezebel calls R. Kelly’s ‘Black Panties’ “a magnificent ode to pussy”, forgetting the rape and child pornography allegations against him.

We are in this blur, we live in it constantly – and by living in it, and breathing it deep into our lungs, we acknowledge that it’s there. We are complicit too. This blur happened on the plane back when I watched Blue Jasmine, whilst I look at the latest magazine photoshoot, when I watch Chinatown. It happens all of the damn time. Art/ist, perhaps. Is it enough just to question these texts, to go into a record store or cinema fully informed, or should we do more – boycotting maybe, along with writing articles such as this? I don’t have an answer to this right now, and I don’t know if I will. But Jennifer Pozner posited this question in Salon, which seems to be the starting point in making these evaluations:

 Ask yourself: Does your money, and your love and praise of an artist, embolden and allow that artist to continue to evade justice for violent, misogynist, and/or racist crimes and, potentially, to continue perpetrating them? If so, are you OK with that?

I know that I’m not ok with that. What’s next?


2 thoughts on “Art/ist: Validating the Blur

  1. Hey Meg, this is a pretty powerful piece. I’m pretty conflicted on the topic, and I wonder to what extent should we value art. If you were to say we should boycott Charlie Sheen because he’s a bad guy, I would support that completely. But if you were to say that we should stop reading Shakespeare (or someone contemporary but of the same caliber) because he’s a bad guy, I would have my reservations. Can we not separate the artist from the art? Does art loose it’s value when it comes from the wrong person? I don’t think so. And does humanity have to suffer for one artist’s mistake?

    I’m not saying that criminals should get away with crimes because they’re talented; I respect the need for justice. But once that person pays the price, he/she should be free to create art and share it with the world. And if that person’s fame somehow saves him/her from the law, that’s a problem with our justice system, not our fans.

    • Thanks for your response! As you can probably tell, I have a lot of internal conflicts about this, but ultimately maybe the fact that we have these conflicts shows the complexity of our humanity, and of others as well.

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