Separate Art From the Artist? THR Critics Debate Hollywood's Harassment Impact

Matthew Weiner - 2015 Mad Men Black & Red Ball - Getty - H 2017
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With Jeffrey Tambor leaving Amazon's Transparent, Matthew Weiner's book tour being disrupted by accusations against him, FX cutting ties with Louis C.K. and a chorus of new voices calling out Brett Ratner and Russell Simmons, Hollywood seems to have entered a new era of accountability when it comes to sexual misconduct. To examine the extent to which these allegations have complicated, and perhaps changed, the way they do their job, three THR critics started a conversation over email. Below are excerpts. 

Tim Goodman The three of us are sitting down to have this conversation in the middle of an ongoing period of women — and some men — being emboldened to come forward with their stories. It's a movement. These sometimes cathartic revelations are devastating and will continue to ripple out into the world of art and entertainment and of course into politics, business and lower-profile but just as important segments of society. Whether they’re about a famous director, senator or the boss at the corner store, stories of sexual misconduct will have their moment, finally, in the light of day.

But the three of us are critics, and one of the questions facing us — an old question, but one that has taken on new urgency — is: To what degree should we, or can we, separate the art from the artist when we write? Before we tackle that head-on, Todd and Inkoo, what are your general thoughts about what's going on here?

Todd McCarthy I don't think there's been a moment in any of our lifetimes when the entertainment industry has been so entirely consumed with one issue that has shaken it all to its core. We go to bed one night and wake up the next morning wondering, “Who's it going to be today? What victims will come forward? And whose hitherto illustrious career will be henceforth seen through the prism of some sexual depredation? Whose future obituary, which once would have begun, 'Joe Schmo, two-time Academy Award winner, Tony Award winner and actor in some of the most important films of his era' will now lead with, 'Joe Schmo, whose starry career as a leading man went up in flames after years of predatory sexual behavior came to light in 2017....'"

There are so many relevant and vexing questions that enter into the discussion. Once we register the revulsion and horror of many of these allegations, there’s also the issue of due process, which has barely come up over the past few weeks. And, awkward as it may be to acknowledge, the matter of whether and how we must distinguish gradations of bad behavior; is what Dustin Hoffman is accused of remotely comparable to that of Harvey Weinstein and therefore deserving of similar censure? For someone like me, whose creative awareness and passions were spiked by the films, music, drama and literature of the late '60s and early '70s, the impulses to break sexual boundaries in art, to take risks, to be cutting edge, to be transgressive, were viewed nothing but positively; but now we need to look at the legacy of all that from a very different point of view.

Inkoo Kang Last week, the feminist blog Jezebel ran a great essay under the headline "This is what a news cycle that holds sexual predators accountable looks like." I couldn't agree more. Forgive me my optimism, but the current flash point feels like an era I honestly didn't think would arrive anytime soon, a time when male and female victims of sexual harassment and assault feel safe (enough) to speak out against their powerful abusers.

So as disorienting and disappointing as the past few weeks have been, I can't help but celebrate the fact that abusive men, especially those with sometimes decadeslong patterns of predation, are now forced to face consequences for their actions and confront the pain that they have caused their victims. This is the arc of the moral universe slowly starting to make its way toward justice. And since some of the allegations fall within the statute of limitations, I for one will be watching closely to see if any of the accused sexual assaulters encounter legal repercussions in addition to professional ones, as they should.

Goodman Though the era of accountability is new, history has many examples of great art created by flawed, often awful, sometimes criminal people. In recent years, just off the top of my head: Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson and Mel Gibson. Are we at a tipping point in terms of how we write about these people and others who are yet to be named?

Kang It’s a good question and one that’s been a long time coming. Several years ago, I attended a double feature of Annie Hall and Manhattan. It was my second time watching Annie Hall, and I'd apparently soured on the movie since I first saw it in high school. I found the courtship style of Woody Allen's character, Alvy Singer, personally repulsive. Alvy tells Annie what to read, what to think, then mansplains his way into her bed. Annie Hall is Allen's romanticization of a kind of intellectual/erotic grooming. Already annoyed by the self-regard posing as self-humbling on screen, I went into Manhattan to watch the same Pygmalion-esque seduction technique, this time on a 17-year-old girl. I walked out.

"Do female film fans matter?" asked LA Weekly critic April Wolfe when news broke two months ago that the Alamo Drafthouse chain had secretly hired disgraced film blogger Devin Faraci for copywriting work. Faraci had been let go from the Drafthouse's employment after a woman alleged that he had sexually assaulted her a decade ago. Wolfe bemoaned the fact that, while some moviegoers would be free to enjoy the features on offer at this year's Fantastic Fest, others would be stuck thinking about the festival's complicity — and perhaps their own — in a system that has no interest in punishing sexual misconduct.

The separation of an artwork from its artist sounds like a mighty interesting concept for those who are able to do it. But for much of the audience, I'd imagine, it's a persistent distraction — a voice that you can't shut up, reminding the viewer not only what an actor or writer or director might have done, but what the viewer might have suffered too. Movies and TV shows are meant to get lost in, but sometimes their creators only remind us of our own sexual traumas. In such cases, an abusive artist has sabotaged his own art.

For working critics whose job it is to keep up (or attempt to keep up) with, and weigh in on, new projects, boycotts of artists whose personal conduct we disapprove of aren't really possible. I've had to review a couple of Allen's movies post-Blue Jasmine, as well as his disastrous Amazon series. I would not have paid money to see them, since I'm disinclined to financially support a man that I believe molested his daughter when she was a child and whose recent projects, as several critics have noted, center on young women who lie.

And I'm even more troubled by, say, the apparent attempt to rehabilitate Mel Gibson with Daddy's Home 2. His reputation for racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and general toxic masculinity (including allegations that he beat his wife Oksana Grigorieva) is being repackaged into an ostensibly relatable and rootable alpha maledom in this studio comedy. Allen's recent projects, Daddy's Home 2 and Louis CK’s Louie exemplify writer Rebecca Traister's post-Weinstein observation that we live in a world where abusers have helped shaped the narratives we tell about our world. If many of these artists keep insisting on their lack of guilt, at what point does art bleed into propaganda?

Goodman I agree that now is maybe not the ideal time to consider the age-old conundrum of how to love the art but loathe the artist. That's an intellectual pursuit whereas we're in the middle of a powerful and emotional societal change; it's not white hot or red hot, it's molten — people are (rightly) pissed off. In the short term, the simplest (and yes, of course, it's the easiest) suggestion is to let people decide how they want to feel and honor it. We probably don't need a pie chart on who feels like they'll be able to watch Louie again — this year or any year. Whatever people choose, I respect that. If they flip-flop or modify that stance in five years, I respect that, too.

As critics, our views should be allowed to change over time as well. We are sitting down to write on shifting ground. I think it's necessary to share some points that are probably obvious but still need to be reiterated: When it comes to artists who have offended, history shows that it's less that people forgive and forget and more that they just forget because the despicable acts were long ago. The forgetting allows, by default, some form of forgiveness or, probably more accurately, less intense caring. Ezra Pound, Wagner, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Degas, Lord Byron, Dickens, Hemingway, Flaubert, Charlie Chaplin and, getting a little more modern, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg — bad people making great art make up a very lengthy list and the older these stories are, the less familiar we are with them. We're all complicit in protecting the artistic legacies of morally questionable or despicable artists, whether we know it — or admit it — or not. That's not going to change minds about any of the people who’ve been more recently accused of assault or misconduct. They are the ones fresh on people's minds and nobody is forgetting them anytime soon. But the far past is a good place to look if we want to guess where some of these people might end up years from the ever-present awfulness of 2017.

Every critic struggles to come up with his or her litmus test on these things and the picture isn’t always clear. Some can't imagine liking or forgiving Polanski but love Chinatown. Others — like you, Inkoo — draw the line in terms of whether watching work from a disgraced artist (like Allen) benefits that artist financially. For some it's a matter of legality; for example, Allen has denied the allegations and hasn't been charged with a crime while, say, Louis C.K. has admitted what he did. And Michael Jackson was charged with multiple crimes but was never convicted. Some people won't watch Allen's movies or listen to Jackson's music, but many do and feel just fine about it.

Personally, it's not too difficult for me to figure out where I'm going to fall as a critic — which is not to say that it’s easy. For example, as much as I've loved the work of Louis C.K., I honestly can't imagine going back and watching Louie again. Who knows which talented icon will do something irredeemable tomorrow, but right now C.K. is the most disappointing revelation because I have long admired the greatness of his work (but not Lucky Louie, which he and I once joked about — at the Television Critics Association where he was a winner with Louie). Complicating matters is the fact that his work is so wrapped up in themes and issues surrounding the kind of thing he did to those women. It's the ultimate example of life imitating art — it can't be untangled.

But what about Better Things, Pamela Adlon's series that I adore and have heaped great acclaim on, to which C.K. is also inextricably linked (he helped write so many of those episodes over two seasons)? What to do with Adlon's connections to C.K., which are hard to disentangle when assessing her accomplishments? Or her not-yet-complete, not-quite-good-enough comments about his acts and admission of wrong-doing? That, I'm finding, is very difficult indeed to wrap my mind around.

I believe that it's also fine, at this early stage, to just admit that you don't know what to think — that it's your personal opinion and it's a work in progress. And I find no joy in parsing out degrees of bad behavior. Which brings me lastly to Mad Men creator Matt Weiner, the only person in this minefield of accusations for whom I’d be even willing to discuss separating the art from the artist right now. I know Weiner better than I do C.K. And, yes, because we're all trying to discuss how these things influence how we do our jobs as critics, it's worth mentioning that I think Mad Men is arguably the best drama ever created for television. So hearing that Emmy-winning staff writer Kater Gordon accused Weiner of sexual harassment was extremely disappointing. For a week, nobody else came forward and we were left to wonder how to evaluate what happened — an error in judgments on one occasion or a sustained pattern of behavior? Again, does anyone want to be in this situation — pondering whether it's somehow less offensive because someone didn't pull out their junk and start masturbating or touch someone against their will, but only made lewd comments?

Things tilted, of course, on Friday when Marti Noxon, a very talented and influential producer, backed Gordon in a series of tweets and wrote, "I believe her" about what Gordon alleges Weiner said to her — "something to the effect, 'You owe it to me to show me your naked body,’” Noxon wrote. Noxon added: Responding to her statement, Matt claimed he would never make that kind of comment to a colleague. But anyone with an even cursory knowledge of the show Mad Men could imagine that very line coming from the mouth of Pete Campbell. Matt, Pete's creator, is many things. He is devilishly clever and witty, but he is also, in the words of one of his colleagues, an "emotional terrorist" who will badger, seduce and even tantrum in an attempt to get his needs met. This personality type cannot help but create an atmosphere where everyone is constantly off guard and unsure where they stand. It is the kind of atmosphere where a comment like "you owe it to me to show me your naked body" may — or may not — be a joke. And it may — or may not — lead to a demotion or even the end of a career.

All of that is damning. I do think it's dangerous to start equating what a writer has a character say with actions the writer might actually do himself. Or even believe. That kind of conflation is reckless and irresponsible for both male and female writers, and I wish Noxon hadn't said it. But her last sentence gets at the absolute crux of the matter: The sexual harassment that Gordon alleges is within the context of a power imbalance; the fact that she's currently out of the business is disheartening and reflects badly on Weiner, if not the show.

Kang To respond to your point about the very awkward task of differentiating between various forms of sexual misconduct: I do think that it's important to judge different acts differently. But even that obvious statement makes me somewhat uncomfortable, as it keeps the focus on artists who are already powerful. It's noteworthy that many of the victims who have come forward about predators in the industry are artists themselves. (It's also crucial to keep in mind the harassment that below-the-line talent are especially vulnerable to.) So while I don't really feel the loss of a hypothetical season of Louie, I do mourn the what-could-have-been careers of women who were blackballed or labeled "crazy" or otherwise marginalized as artists. It's not just the abusers' art at stake here. Abuse impoverishes art as a whole by shutting down the voices of people who aren't already the ones talking. As a critic, I care, and believe I should care, more about art in general than the specific art of men who abuse their power.

I can imagine a near future in which Louis C.K. regains something resembling his stature before the New York Times revelations. People want to forgive celebrities, I think; fans exponentially more so. But C.K.'s transgressions uniquely undercut the potency of his work because in much of his standup and on Louie, he passes himself off as a moral authority. (Explaining misogyny in society, for example, C.K. famously declared of men, "We're the number one threat to women!" in a line that's been used against the comedian a lot the past few days.) Even if his love of absurdism and his smart observations about the soul-draining inconveniences of life win him future laughs, I'd imagine that his signature mode of joke-laden scolding is now forever lost to him. He's in no position to tell anyone else what to think anymore.

I saw a few people tweeting about how Kater Gordon's accusations of sexual harassment against Weiner reminded them of Don and Peggy, but obviously the less seemingly autobiographical an artist's work is, the more easily their misconduct slips from our memory. There's quite a bit of armchair psychoanalyzing in the takes that have ruled I Love You, Daddy and the sexual-assault episode of Louie (in which Louie nearly rapes his friend Pamela) an exhibitionistic confession or a dare to be caught. Not all such pieces are productive: When the Woody Allen molestation allegations were revisited in 2014, for example, a few journalists went overboard in their claims to have found admissions of pedophilic desire in the filmmaker's early plays. But I'm overall glad that critics, like Willa Paskin in this piece on Louie, are revisiting CK's work to see it with new eyes, now without the benefit of the doubt that critical darlings usually receive. The culture is changing mighty fast, and it's the critic's job to note and reflect on those changes.

McCarthy I’d like to go back for a moment to Tim's brief list of "bad people making great art," which puts a spotlight on a subject I've sometimes discussed with friends but isn't widely remarked upon — primarily because the artists and their transgressions fade into history while the art remains. The truth is that artists are often very difficult, tortured people with multiple demons, as well as ill-mannered, egotistical, unprincipled and, once successful, only worse than before and not about to be told what they can and cannot do or say. That's the way it's almost always been. In the stunning new reality of the moment, that's not going to fly anymore and artists, maybe for the first time, are being called on their words and behavior. Considering the eminent artists listed by Tim, I'd be willing to bet that most people reading this wouldn't be able to say why they were morally and ethically dubious, even as their names and work endure.

And speaking of "bad people," I've sometimes wondered why no one has used Roman Polanski's own words against him. In his 1984 autobiography, the director wrote of how, when he was trying to recover from the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, he stayed at the home of a Swiss playboy industrialist. "By a happy coincidence, his chalet was situated close to the Montesano, a finishing school for young ladies.... One couldn't spend long in Gstaad without becoming aware that it was the finishing school capital of the world. Hundreds of fresh-faced, nubile young girls of all nationalities populated the Montesano School," among others. "It was now that Kathy, Madeleine, Sylvia, and others whose names I forget played a fleeting but therapeutic role in my life. They were all between sixteen and nineteen years old, schoolgirls no longer but not yet worldly-wise women with professional or marital ambitions.... And they were more beautiful, in a natural, coltish way, than they would ever be again." Pretty revealing.

My final question for the moment: What will become of these men whose careers are now over, at least for the foreseeable future? Some, if not most, of them are artists, and most artists feel the compulsion to create. For a long time to come, it would seem that the only mode of expression open to them will be writing. I could imagine some of them writing confessionals of one sort or another, some in searching, introspective, self-analytical mode, others possibly in fictional formats. Some will be self-searchingly, or self-servingly, honest and apologetic, others perhaps evasive and/or defensive, and still others in absolute denial. Some will be looking for a door that might promise to lead to regained legitimacy and public acceptance, while others will disappear from sight, never to return. But there's already no doubt that this development, in one of the most contentious and downright disturbing years in modern American history, is already a watershed event with ripples that will continue indefinitely and no doubt with some unpredictable results.