Cancel culture has become a phenomenon throughout our society that is criticized largely by the right as a extreme form of political correctness under which a statement or conduct that is out of step with the prevalent form of opinion on a topic subjects the speaker or actor to ostracism and retracts that person’s right to speak (through social media, public appearances or otherwise) on not only the subject of the indiscretion, but virtually any other topic as well. Much of the thinking on this trend has derived from the @MeToo movement, which has rightfully exposed many powerful figures in every sphere of influence to well-deserved downfalls because of acts of sexual violence against women. Other groups, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, have called out racism in its various forms and have similarly sought cultural exile for those committing such transgressions.
In the case of the most grievous acts, loss of career, untold humiliation and even imprisonment (think Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby), are easily justifiable, as are the career-destroying repercussions against James Levine, former head conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, who abused his power through a pattern of sexual predation over young artists whose careers he controlled. In these cases, it is hard to say that they didn’t deserve the consequences.
But, especially on the racism front, cancellation has its limits. Roseanne Barr was quickly exiled from her comeback show for her crude racist comments and bizarre conspiracy theories, while Mel Gibson has resumed his successful Hollywood career and Anna Wintour remains the undisputed queen of Vogue.
But even when cancellation is truly deserved and successful, what do we do about great works of art produced by proven sexual predators, pedophiles and racists before their sins were exposed, or at least revealed to be true with a fair degree of probability? Are we supposed to forget about the great movies, including Shakespeare in Love, Inglorious Basterds or The English Patient, that Weinstein produced? What about the recordings of the classic operas that Levine conducted? Or, in the case of Woody Allen, whose pedophilia has never been fully proven, what about Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters? More problematic is Manhattan, where the character Allen plays takes up with a high school girl played by Mariel Hemingway, a plot line creepily similar to the conduct Allen has been accused of with his adopted daughter.
I recently read The Saddest Words, a book on the works of William Faulkner, undeniably one of the greatest American writers, by Michael Gorra, an English professor at Smith. The premise is that all of Faulkner’s works were haunted by the Civil War and the lingering effects of slavery. His complex characters (not least Quentin Compson) wrestled with but failed to resolve the paradoxes of his native South and were often destroyed by the struggle.
Gorra eviscerates the myth that the War was a “Lost Cause” that defended a form of gentile life that tried to ignore the fact that such a life couldn’t have existed without its cruel system of subjugation of a supposedly superior race over an inferior one, which was the one and only cause of the War. And although Faulkner confronted this past in his work (which he famously said was “not even past,”) and vilified slavery as evil, he himself spouted decidedly racist statements and resisted the notion of a speedy integration of Southern institutions.
Ultimately, the question is whether an artist’s works are “better” than the human being who created them. Faulkner hated the notion of a writer as any sort of celebrity and believed that the author of a written work is irrelevant; it is only the work itself that matters. For him, it made no difference if Shakespeare’s plays were written by a single man named “Shakespeare” or any number of other authors or collaborators. We would still read them today for their greatness.
Which brings us back to the question of what to do about works of credibly accused pedophiles, other sexual predators or racists. It is one thing to reject a singular product of the artist, such as a book or a recording. It is more complicated for a collaborative work, such as a movie or an opera, which involve many performers including, potentially, the offender’s victims (see Paltrow, Gwyneth). It is an imperfect solution, but I think you can draw an objective line at whether or not the creator stands to profit monetarily if not necessarily in esteem from your watching, reading or listening to the work.
It seems silly to say we shouldn’t listen to the songs of a dead pedophile (although repulsion at the conduct itself may compel one to such a decision) or go see an exhibit of Picasso’s paintings because he was a creep to his wives and mistresses. With Weinstein’s virtual imprisonment for life and the dissolution of his company, what purpose does it serve to ignore the great movies he produced? An even better approach would be if any monetary gains derived from listening or viewing a work inure to the benefit of the artist’s victims. That would assuage the conscience of anyone still compelled to patronize the works themselves.
There are no easy answers to these questions. But, in any case, I think I will reread The Sound and the Fury, which I never got when it was assigned in high school. Whether or not Faulkner was an actual racist in life shouldn’t deprive me of this pleasure nor detract from the greatness of the novel. However, I do think it’s time to delete Christmas with Placido Domingo from my Spotify playlists.