Written by Taylor Glenn

In The News

Accountability and the artist

The list of celebrities who have been accused of or have committed terrible acts is always growing. Taylor Glenn asks should we, or even can we, separate the two?

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea. Photo: Claire Folger.

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.
– Bob Dylan

The debate of whether we ought to separate art from the artist is an old one. It’s also a debate which has vacillated in accordance with the trending values and pressures of the era – i.e. McCarthyism’s political witch hunts, 1990s who’s-caught-wearing-fur scandals.

But it isn’t difficult to rattle off a list of male artists whose beliefs and behaviours (whether alleged or proven) remain at odds with how their work is regarded: Wagner was anti-Semitic. Charles Dickens was abusive. Picasso was a misogynist.

Roald Dahl was anti-Semitic. Roman Polanski raped a minor and fled the US. Woody Allen allegedly molested his daughter. Chris Brown assaulted his girlfriend. Johnny Depp was accused of domestic violence. Nate Parker was accused of rape. Mel Gibson – well, you get the picture. You may have even seen a meme about it.

Last week, while my native USA was exploding in five directions at the hands of its newly elected president, a man for whom ‘separation and forgiveness’ has been all too kind, I took myself to the movies to shut off my brain for a while. It’s my drug of choice and it usually works a treat.

This time I paused while buying a ticket, though. I wanted to see Manchester by the Sea, but I had read a detailed account of the sexual harassment charges filed against its star, Casey Affleck, by two former female colleagues.

I wasn’t sure which side of myself to obey: the side which wanted to separate art from the artist, or the side which wanted to fight against supporting someone who had apparently abused his power in a reprehensible way.

What I was experiencing was a good example of cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort which occurs when you just want to go see a good fucking film but the lead actor has likely been a complete twat in real life. Technical definition, there.

“It isn’t difficult to rattle off a list of male artists whose beliefs and behaviours (whether alleged or proven) remain at odds with how their work is regarded: Wagner was anti-Semitic. Charles Dickens was abusive. Picasso was a misogynist.”

Cognitive dissonance was first studied extensively by Leon Festinger in the late 1950s, and his theory of dissonance reduction is still widely referenced today. He suggested that when faced with the discomfort of two opposing thoughts, beliefs or behaviours, people will seek to reduce that discomfort either by making a cognitive or behavioural change, or attempting to reduce the importance of the thoughts themselves.

In other words, humans like to feel that their beliefs and behaviours are in harmony, and will generally operate in ways to reduce any discomfort therein.

Back to the movies, I let my separate-art-from-the-artist side win, and I saw the film. Spoiler – Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly an escape from the world movie, but it is excellent, in my opinion. But I spent quite a good deal of the film pushing away intrusive thoughts about those women who have described how they were treated by Affleck.

Turns out, I hadn’t done such a great job at dissonance reduction after all. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe, in this era where a narcissistic man who spews blatantly racist, misogynist, xenophobic, and all around ill-informed bullshit can become a world leader, we can’t afford to make ourselves too comfy with that dissonance anymore.

However, much as we seem to be holding public figures accountable for their actions in the media, cheering on moments like Ewan McGregor refusing an interview (as we should), it doesn’t seem to be translating to real institutional change. Yet.

The fact it’s so easy to rattle off celebrities who have been accused of or committed terrible acts across the spectrum yet continue to work, be praised and receive awards, says a lot about how we exist in our own state of dissonance reduction.

The fact that these cases so often involve a degree of victim-blaming is also telling. Either we don’t collectively care enough about the victims in question/the values at stake, or we are numbing ourselves for the sake of more guiltlessly consuming a product.

The era of social media has made us all judge and jury of public figures, and that has its own very dangerous pitfalls. But amid all that noise, we need to ask ourselves how and why reprehensible behaviour continues to get a pass for men in power, and ask what we can do to fight this. There has never been a more crucial time to do so.


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Written by Taylor Glenn

Taylor is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London. She has a two-year-old and a dead basil plant.