It’s a topic that has been covered heavily by news outlets these past few years. Sexual assault—whether it’s happening at high school or on college campuses—is becoming a wholesale issue. Recently, the profile of this issue has been raised in the art world. Prominent entertainers like Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, and Kevin Spacey, to name a few, have had allegations of sexual assaults raised against them.
Despite the misdeeds of these artists, there is a question of whether their art should be evaluated differently given their personal misconducts. Some say yes. Those who say no state that the merit of their performances and works should be evaluated independently from their personal lives. But, can the art really be separated from the artist? Ultimately, I think not—the analysis of the product cannot be detached from the process.
First, I think it’s important to have a rough understanding of the mindset of those who perpetrate sexual assaults. When these men in Hollywood acted in such abhorrent ways, the questions that pop into my mind are, “Do these men not have mothers? What about little sisters?” It confuses me as to why certain men, particularly men in positions of authority, feel entitled to act this way towards women, given that they would most likely vehemently object to the same treatment displayed towards their female family members. There’s an underlying hypocrisy here.
The answer is not an easy one, but perhaps it would be helpful to look into the psychology of rapists. Recently, in one of my political science classes, a professor mentioned that he read an article detailing the psychology of rapists. In this article, “What Experts Know About Men Who Rape,” by The New York Times author Heather Murphy, there is a claim that rapists tend to deny self-responsibility for the act of sexual assault—and this is most likely a reflex stemming from human nature.
One of the doctors in the article, Sherry Hamby, who is also the editor of the Journal of Psychology of Violence, explained that “studies of incarcerated rapists—even men who admit to keeping sex slaves in conflict zones—find a similar disconnect. It’s not that they deny sexual assault happens; it’s just that the crime is committed by the monster over there.”
Hamby emphasized that in denying the assault, rapists actually demonstrate a feature of humanity of trying to preserve a positive self-perception. “No one thinks they are a bad guy,” she said.
Why should artworks be immune to their creation? In most cases, the judgment we make on a product is never wholly detached from the process. We make these biased judgments all the time. In the 1990s, protestors boycotted sportswear stores like Nike, when it was revealed that the company employed child labor. In terms of dietary habits, some vegetarians don’t eat meat based on ethical reasons. So, just in the same way that our dietary and consumer evaluations change after we understand how our food or clothing are made, our artistic evaluations should change, as well, after factoring in how a piece of art work was created.
One could argue that maybe an artist’s misdeeds didn’t affect the creation of his or her artworks. Thus, it would be unfair to judge the art in conjunction with the artist’s personal life, since ones’ personal life was not part of the artwork’s creation, anyways. Maybe on this understanding, the artwork should remain detached from its creator.
It’s hard to ignore that, sometimes, the process of creating artworks is in fact influenced by the artist’s misdeeds directly. For example, in Last Tango in Paris, actress Maria Schneider was not informed of the infamous rape scene. While filming for this scene, Schneider actually thought that what was being done to her was real. She admitted that the tears she had shed during the movie’s scene were real—they weren’t fake, and she wasn’t acting anymore.
In cases like Last Tango in Paris, it’s hard to view the work solely on artistic terms—part of the movie’s creation was brought about through immoral means. As a result, it’s not longer just a movie—it becomes video footage documenting a crime, and our evaluations of this particular scene in the movie should reflect that.