Imagine if we decided that every man found to abuse his power in his production of art were obligated to provide a disclaimer with that art. Imagine a cinema screen that flashed the following warning before beginning the show:
A WOMAN WAS PERMANENTLY PHYSICALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS FILM.
What if it said two women? What about ten?
I imagine you shaking your head in disbelief, thinking that this is where you would draw the line.
But in reality this is the calculation we make every single day when we choose to engage with the art of abusive men: we readily consume what they create without sparing a thought for what they destroy.
Can we separate the man from the art? In an era where every other day another powerful creative leader is exposed as an abuser, can we really boycott all of their wares in protest?
Can we simply decide that because the artist himself is a predator that we should no longer consume his art? Can we really throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater? Is it that simple?
Of course it is.
The answer to this question is remarkably simple. If there is a reason to believe a man has abused, violated or intimidated women while working as an artist then we should not allow him to profit from anything he has created, at least until the matter has been resolved.
I am not saying that we must religiously avoid every morsel of exposure to every piece of work created by a violent man; we would be hard pressed to move through the world that way. But we can make decisions about where and how we spend our money, and as a result, this will influence what kinds of art continue to be created and which are thwarted. To my mind, art that is intricately coupled with its creator’s abuse should be boycotted, shunned, deliberately ostracised because as long as such art is being made, vulnerable people will continue to be placed in harm’s way.
Can we appreciate that there may be some value in a Junot Díaz novel or a Harvey Weinstein-produced film without endorsing the behaviour that was inherent in its creation? Yes. But should we continue to spend money on these products and contribute to the war chest with which the predator will embark on his next venture? No. At least, not if we are committed to creating a world in which the autonomy and integrity of women is taken seriously.
In a world where abusive men frequently avoid being held accountable by the criminal justice system, their employers, or their friends, starving them of our attention and disposable income as consumers is the only power we have.
If enough of us decide not to participate in the consumption of art made by abusive men then eventually those men will be forced to accept that if they are to remain viable, they have to find a way to make art without abuse. If they are as talented as we are led to believe they are, this should be present no difficulties. Imagine how much difference we could make if we demanded a cultural and artistic world that resisted rather than encouraged the base human tendencies of hatred and fear.
The idea of separating the man from the art is based on the perplexing logic that we should forgive these men for their transgressions because of their profound artistic merit.
Firstly, observe in this argument just how little we value women’s experience. The trauma that accompanies violation, harassment and abuse has the capacity to destroy our character; to render us frozen still from fear and pain; to stymie our careers; to wreak havoc on our intimate lives; to live on in us and haunt us at every turn.
It is telling that we are willing to accept these consequences for women as long as the person responsible for this devastation makes good films, good albums, or writes good books.
But even accepting this premise gives the notion of ‘separating the man from the art’ more credence than it is due, because it assumes that these men are powerful because they make good art. The truth is, and has always been, the opposite: they are able to make good art because they are powerful. We allow ourselves to believe that creativity is somehow inherently linked to abuse of power, when in fact too often it is the willingness to abuse power that gives people the luxury to create.
In a world where violence against women is systemic, the success of the art depends on the abuse. These men created paths to ‘greatness’ for themselves by demeaning and diminishing the lives of women and vulnerable individuals that they encountered along the way, by not taking ‘no’ for an answer.
In almost every high-profile story of abuse the man in question has committed the assault or violation in direct connection with the making of his work. Harvey Weinstein indecently assaulted actresses while courting them for his films. Junot Díaz intimidated women in the literary industry on his path to publication. Kevin Spacey’s predation was directed at young boys in the theatre world; Louis C.K’s was directed at vulnerable women in comedy. President Trump was explicit in his acknowledgment that his ability to wantonly sexually assault women was a function of his powerful position in the television business.
The history of successful creative men is made up of many powerful individuals who were willing to forsake the dignity of others in order to get their own stories heard. In the process, they not only amplify their own voices but they eliminate the competition; they successfully silence the stories—comedy, film, art, music—that could have emanated from their victims had they not diminished and destroyed them.
As comedian Hannah Gadsby points out in her recent special Nanette : Thanks to art history, I understand the world and my place in it: I don’t have one.
When assessing a man who has abused his power it is farcical to suggest that we could have the abuse without the power, or the power without the abuse. It’s a package deal, and if we’re serious about tackling the abuse we have to find a way to thwart the power that enables it.
The scared women whose dignity is devoured by the powerful are, to use poet Kate Tempest’s turn of phrase, the bricks that built the houses. Take them away and the whole structure crumbles—the man, the art, and every ostensibly benign observer who participates in the fantasy of separating the two.
This alarming logical flaw in the notion of appreciating the art while simultaneously condemning the tactics he used to create the work leads me to think that this argument is not only based on our desire to continue enjoying art but something more sinister: it is instead the most recent pivot by which oppressors have shifted their narrative to accommodate the cultural and political requirements of being accepted in our modern-day ‘woke’ world.
The lawyer and author Michelle Alexander makes the compelling point that oppression is, by definition, adaptive. It is cunning in its ability to mould itself into new situations, new rules, new social norms. For all our self-congratulation, we don’t ever actually make progress in dismantling the structures of oppression, writes Alexander. We simply redesign them.
It is the hospital-grade virus that does not readily yield to the wonders of modern medicine. It adapts and resists as each new development threatens its vitality.
So it is with misogyny: the men who sought to rule the world through an insidious threat of personal and sexual violence have been caught out, so they must shift the narrative just so; just enough to throw us off their scent.
Those who control the narrative know that in 2018 it is no longer acceptable to be openly accepting of sexual predation and misogyny, so instead they concede that we must condemn the man—but in the same breath, they beg us to spare the art.
This sleight of hand works every time: it takes very little to convince a group of well-meaning but comfortable people to continue doing nothing at all about the suffering of others.
There is a popular late-night venue in the city I live in that has immortalised a band that is the subject of repeated accusations of abuse and violence by displaying their likenesses in a towering stained-glass window that stretches across the ceiling of the bar. They are, quite literally, untouchable. A crude symbol of almighty power that is as shameless as it is permanent.
I have not set foot in this venue in months, knowing that every dollar I spend there is an endorsement of the web of justification that enables these men to continue selling music, playing shows and putting women in danger as they do it.
This venue isn’t alone. Many members of the industry continue to protect and celebrate them. There are many venues, many people, many streets I now avoid out of fear of coming face to face with violence or its dedicated apologists.
I am someone who knows intimately the insidious effects of male violence on its victims. I recently wrote about a particularly violent assault I endured, but it is not just because of this specific misfortune that I am afraid to walk around my neighbourhood these days. My life, like so many other lives, has been punctuated by traumas both profound and mundane. Each one reinforces the others, which in turn reinforce the notion that the world is not safe for us.
It is not just the violent stranger in the night who makes us afraid, but the everyday reminders that those who wish to do us harm can do so with impunity.
It is the knowledge that if we, as women, wander into that arena—if we stand under that stained-glass window—we know that if those men did decide, to again borrow the words of Hannah Gadsby, to ‘test their strength out on us’, no-one would do a single wretched thing about it.
It is the knowledge that no matter how sophisticated the narrative becomes, no matter how cleverly we justify our continued acceptance of abuse as just another part of art and life, ultimately we will find ourselves where we have always been: fragmented, vulnerable, left to fend for ourselves amid a sea of onlookers who refuse to come to our defence.
This week the band, called Sticky Fingers, announced a 2018 national tour. They will play venues like the Sydney’s Hordern Pavillion, Melbourne’s Festival Hall, and Brisbane’s Riverstage.
The truth is that in the event of my example above, cinema-goers would probably shake their heads at the crude disclaimer, but would sit back in their seats and enjoy the show. Meanwhile the man behind the art rides off into the night on the coattails of our complicity, buoyed by a renewed sense of confidence after realising he has fooled us once more.
Meanwhile, the women he abused disappear from the screen to make way for his creation, never to be spoken of or heard from again.
In the words of Meera Atkinson in her new work of creative nonfiction reflecting on the insidious impacts of male violence, these women are condemned to ‘be diminished and die in trauma’s long shadow.’
The rest of us, consumed by the hypothetical complexities of how to separate the man from the art, hardly give them another thought.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist and writer. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction about trauma and recovery, will be published in 2019.