One of the knock-on effects of the #MeToo movement has been its escalation of an important corollary debate: How should we think about the art of wicked men? It’s not a new question, by any means, but it is being posed now in what is effectively a new cultural environment around the whole question of sexual harassment and abuse.
Our judgments, both of art and of the people who make it, are always subjective and inconsistent, and our hearts are fickle and weak. We could never hope to know the full truth of any artist’s life. Many we probably judge too harshly; others not harshly enough.Take Louis C.K. as an example. Last October, a New York Times investigation corroborated stories that had been circulating for years: Louis had pressured at least five female colleagues to watch or listen to him masturbate. Within hours of the New York Times report, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz declared—with memorable bluntness—“Louis C.K. is done.” And we shouldn’t feel bad about it, either, Seitz said. “There’s no reason to feel remorse for disinvesting affection we sank into artists who are later revealed to be criminals or abusers. There’s no reason to have qualms about stamping their work ‘Of Archival Interest Only’ and moving on to something new.”
Seitz’s logic has an immediate emotional resonance—the revelation of an artist’s abuse does fundamentally change our relationship to their work. This is especially true in the case of someone like Louis, whose particular transgressions are right there in his act for everyone to see. Louis frequently talked about sexual perversion in his stand-up, even his own sexual perversion, and we all kind of uncomfortably assumed that the worst bits weren’t literal descriptions of his own personal behavior (though no one was exactly shocked when it turned out that they often were, more or less). If those bits made us uncomfortable before, they’re almost unwatchable now. It’s hard to blame anyone for deciding they’re done with Louis’s comedy.
But it’s one thing to say you don’t want to watch something anymore, and another to say the artist is “done,” and that their work is valuable now only as a historical artifact, an awkward display in the “Sexual Perverts” wing of the cultural museum.
Because Seitz’s logic breaks down pretty quickly if you follow it along. For one thing, no one seems all that interested in applying it consistently. The recently disgraced sexual abusers of the #MeToo movement are big targets, understandably, and the anger directed toward them is focused and fresh. But what if we go a little further back in history? What about the countless other great artists with histories of violence and abuse?
What about, for example, Jimmy Page and David Bowie, both of whom had sex with teenage girls? I don’t see anyone burning their Zeppelin or Bowie records. What about Michael Jackson, or Phil Spector, or Miles Davis? Should I stop listening to Thriller? Or to Kind of Blue? If we applied this rule across the board, we’d have to stamp “Of Archival Interest Only” on quite a large percentage of all the art ever made. And that’s only counting the history we know about—who knows what further revelations lie buried under the sands of time?
Which leads us to another impossible question: exactly how badly does someone have to transgress for their art to be taken out of commission? Is, say, cheating bad enough? Clearly not, by today’s standards—it’s common for celebrities to cheat on their spouses or significant others regularly and still enjoy reputable, even “classy” status in the public’s estimation. But cheating is, by any measure, an incredibly selfish and destructive act. Cheating is itself a kind of violence, a severing of physical, emotional, and even spiritual bonds, a traumatic blow to the soul of someone you purported to love.
The truth is, we don’t actually expect moral perfection from our artists—nor could we possibly. The reasons we choose to hold some to a higher standard than others are tangled up in a web of our own personal connections to them, as well as in the vagaries of history and the constantly changing mores of the times.
And yet. Louis’s sins (and Woody Allen’s, and Bill Cosby’s, and Garrison Keillor’s) are still there. We can’t just go on laughing at their jokes the way we used to. We feel a deep human need for recompense, for justice. Writing off their entire catalog of work feels right, somehow: they deserve it, certainly. Their names should be stained—and not just stained: ruined, obliterated, swept into the dustbin of history.
All these revelations of wickedness are especially hard for us to compute because as a society, we’re pretty heavily invested in the idea that most people are basically well-meaning, compassionate, and goodhearted. This idea is straight out of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the term Christian Smith and Melinda Denton came up with back in 2005 to describe the religious beliefs of America’s youth. There probably is a God, the thinking goes, who watches over the world, and that God wants people to be good, nice, and fair—which most people are anyway, at least most of the time.
But what are we supposed to do when such widespread, pervasive evil comes to light? What are we supposed to do when our favorite comedians, film directors, and actors turn out to be creeps and sexual predators?
What a lot of people seem to have done is create a new category: the sinners, the despicable, the unforgivable, the scum. This is the category for Louis and those like him, the rightful targets of all the outrage and disbelief stored up over long years of suffering and abuse. Like Louis, these people are “done”—and we don’t have to feel bad about it, either. They’ve forfeited their right to empathy or forgiveness: these basic human virtues don’t deign to reach so low. Even their artistic work is now tainted and off limits.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it lends itself very naturally to self-righteousness and tends to discourage the very kind of humble introspection that these revelations ought to inspire in each one of us. It’s inherently reflexive: it lets me point the finger of judgment at the repugnant other without having to reckon with the darkness of my own heart.
But the truth is, the same seeds of wickedness that bore such horrible fruit in Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, et al., live in my heart, too. I may not have sexually harassed or abused anyone, but I’ve certainly objectified women’s bodies. I’ve been ignorant of the ways my power and privilege have wounded those around me. Even those of us who aren’t quite ready to scrap all of these mens’ creative work for good can still fall into the habit of thinking about sin in binary terms: the wicked people over there, and the rest of us decent, well-meaning people over here. But sin isn’t binary. This is the first and most fundamental truth of the Christian religion: sin always begins in my own heart. There are no loathsome sinners “over there,” because there is no “over there”—we’re all here, together, guilty and condemned.
None of this is to minimize the gravity of these mens’ actions. There are degrees of sin. We’re right to see sexual abuse as an especially egregious and destructive act; abusers should receive both personal and social comeuppance for their crimes. But there’s something else here, too. If we can’t or won’t acknowledge the sin in our own hearts, we’re not taking it seriously enough. Someone else’s sin is no less wrong just because I can find the seeds of it in my own heart, too. Instead, that discovery should give me pause: I know that fully grown, sin gives birth to death.
Art is rarely, if ever, all good, but it’s not usually all bad either—the line between good and evil, Solzhenitsyn said, cuts right through the heart of every man. That wicked people can still create transcendent art is bound up with the central riddle of the human condition. Dostoyevsky was anti-Semitic, carried on numerous affairs, drank to excess, and gambled compulsively. He also wrote some of the most deeply moral—even deeply Christian—novels of all time. Picasso’s reputation as a serial chauvinist was well-earned, but his art towers over the twentieth century, its wondrous beauty undeniable.
The art of wicked men is so deeply woven into our culture’s fabric, and into our own memories and perceptions of the world, that it would be impossible to eradicate it even if we wanted to. That’s not to say anyone’s obligated to read, watch, or listen to anything they’d rather not, but it’s good to remember that we don’t look to art for moral perfection, or for simplicity. Art doesn’t answer our questions or alleviate our conflictedness; it multiplies them. It’s irreducible to clear rational categories: it gestures beyond itself to something else, something inscrutable, somewhere past the horizon.
Our judgments, both of art and of the people who make it, are always subjective and inconsistent, and our hearts are fickle and weak. We could never hope to know the full truth of any artist’s life. Many we probably judge too harshly; others not harshly enough. Of course, some sins are graver and more destructive than others, and have more serious consequences. For Louis and those like him, one consequence is that their actions have cast an ugly pall across their creative work. Many people just don’t want to watch them anymore.
The meting out of that particular consequence may seem capricious, subject to the whims of history and circumstance, but it’s nothing to the righteous judgment that awaits them at the last day. In the end, they’ll answer to a much more jealous—and more gracious—power than you or me.