Reflecting on #MeToo: Why we shouldn’t separate art from artist

Kevin Spacey
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It begins with a victim speaking out. Then a headline surfaces. Cancel hashtags trend on Twitter. More headlines. Weeks pass. And then the person is cast in a movie. Or they produce a new album. Or they perform at an exclusive event. Or they win an award. Or they become an elected official.

Recently, “Baby Driver” actor Ansel Elgort was accused of sexual assault by a woman named Gabby on Twitter. Gabby alleged that Elgort sexually assaulted her when she was 17, leading her to develop PTSD and experience panic attacks. Elgort has since issued a statement denying her claims. He will once again be in the public eye in December — this time as a star of Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story.”

Activist Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement arguably defined the last decade by sparking an international dialogue about sexual violence, revealing years of abuse in Hollywood and in the music industry. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, R. Kelly and other high-profile men faced allegations of sexual assault and exploitation of their powerful positions. Although many prominent men have met lawsuits and backlash since #MeToo became more widespread, some figures remain successful and even popular.

In 2015, scream rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine pleaded guilty to use of a minor in a sexual performance. Last month, he landed the top spot on the Billboard chart by collaborating with Nicki Minaj. In 2017, comedian Louis C.K. was accused of and later admitted to masturbating in front of female co-workers. Since then, he has sold out theaters in Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, Romania and Ukraine. In 2019, singer Chris Brown was arrested after allegations of aggravated rape. A year later, his collaboration with Drake became his 100th entry on the Billboard Hot 100.

This pattern reveals an unsettling truth present in the entertainment industry: Even when men in power are accused of predatory behavior, their careers are not always affected significantly by the allegations. No matter the accusations they face, celebrities will generally retain loyal supporters due to their talents in their individualized fields.

In 2014, pop star Kesha sued her executive music producer Lukasz Gottwald — more commonly known as Dr. Luke — for sexual assault and emotional abuse, requesting that she be released from her recording contract with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records. Shortly after Kesha filed her lawsuit, Dr. Luke countersued her for breach of contract and defamation. Two years later, despite overwhelming support for #FreeKesha from fans and celebrities alike, a New York judge denied Kesha release from her contract.

Despite the stress from her ongoing legal battle, Kesha channeled her sorrow into producing Rainbow, her 2017 Grammy-nominated album focused on vulnerability and moving past trauma. That same year, Sony Music Entertainment announced that Dr. Luke was no longer the CEO of Kemosabe Records, in what seemed like an attempt to distance the company from the legal case. Dr. Luke, however, quietly continued his musical career under the pseudonyms Made in China and Tyson Trax. He most recently helped produce rapper Doja Cat’s hit “Say So,” which quickly rose on charts after achieving fame on the popular video-sharing app TikTok.

Dr. Luke is one of many figures in the entertainment industry who, even after assault allegations, have continued their careers successfully. This raises a difficult question: Is it possible to separate art from the artist? Is it acceptable to enjoy the brilliant art of someone accused of abuse or known to be abusive? For some consumers, the short answer is yes; art can ultimately transcend the artist, and people should be able to appreciate art from whomever without feeling guilt.

However, in an increasingly digital age, appreciating an abuser’s art without repercussions is not possible. Whether it’s streaming their album on Spotify, bingeing their television show on Netflix or watching their new movie on Disney+, this engagement with their work elevates their platform and directly benefits them. When we disassociate the art from the artist, we are actively choosing to ignore the artist’s past — and the trauma that their victims have suffered through — in order to be entertained or satisfied by their art. We are complicit.

The #MeToo movement marked a historic shift in the arts and entertainment industry by providing support to victims and stripping many abusers of their high-profile statuses. Nevertheless, the movement is far from over. Today, even if an artist does something regarded by society as heinous, there seems to be no such thing as bad publicity. Record labels, agents and creative consulting companies are rarely eager to cut ties with a hugely popular artist. As a consumer of art, you should consider removing that song from your repeat playlist. Borrow that film from your library instead of streaming. Unfollow, unsubscribe. Even the most seemingly insignificant actions have consequences, and it is up to us to consciously make choices about whom we support.

Contact Taila Lee at [email protected].