Can We Really Separate the Actions of an Artist from Their Art?

The upcoming Hollywood award season may be one of the most controversial—and important—in recent memory.

At the center of conversations regarding this year’s Oscars is a film that takes on issues including injustice, racism, America’s difficult history and even Christianity. Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave and Christian preacher who led a rebellion in 1831.

Early previews of the film caused such a stir that the independent movie was sold for more than $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight Pictures following a showing at Sundance, the highest ever at the festival. It instantly became an favorite for Best Picture.

That’s what has made the allegations against its director, writer and star even more headline-grabbing.

Back in 1999, while he was a student at Penn State University, Nate Parker and his roommate Jean McGianni Celestin—who co-wrote Birth of a Nation—were accused of raping a fellow student while she was unconscious and intoxicated. She later said that the duo harassed her when she pressed charges. The details of the case are disturbing.

Parker was eventually acquitted (he claimed the act was consensual) and though Celestin was initially convicted, the conviction was later overturned.

Parker has since attempted to put the case behind him. He and Celestin transferred schools to escape the shadow of the case, and Parker went on to a successful career as an actor, appearing in films like The Great Debaters and Red Tails. He has frequently spoken about the importance that his Christian faith has played in his career and in his life as a father and husband.

The alleged victim though, was continually haunted by the case. Years later, she took her own life. In an interview with Variety, her brother said, “If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point. The trial was pretty tough for her.” He said that she suffered from “PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse.”

Since the allegations and the case has once again come to light, Parker has repeatedly addressed them (though, he’s also been criticized for how he’s addressed them).

For some, it’s hard to see past Parker’s past, even though his film may be one of the most important works of art released this year.

And he’s not the only one whose work is facing scrutiny because of his personal life.

Mel Gibson, the blockbuster-mainstay turned Hollywood pariah, has a new movie coming out this fall that’s also drawing rave reviews. It reportedly sparked a 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival.

Like Parker’s film, Hacksaw Ridge is also based on a true story with faith at the center. The movie tells the story of a devout WWII hero, struggling with the realities of war and the convictions of faith.

It’s the first movie Gibson’s directed in a decade, since he became more known for his racist rant during a DUI arrest and allegations of domestic abuse than his work as a filmmaker.

It’s difficult to see or think about works from either of the filmmakers without discussing their personal lives. After all, to some degree, art is a reflection of the artist. But at what point does it exist independently? At what point can a piece of art be engaged with, without empowering or endorsing the person who created it?

It’s a question many are asking.

Difficult Questions

There’s a scene in a recent episode of the sitcom The Carmichael Show, where the characters—members of a suburban African-American family—discuss a moral dilemma.

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The show’s lead, Jerrod Carmichael, has acquired tickets to a Bill Cosby stand-up show. Instantly a family debate breaks out about the moral implications of enjoying the work of a man accused of dozens of horrific sexual assaults.

One character’s principled stand quickly turns into a morally slippery slope: Why is it OK to watch the movies of Woody Allen—a man whose own step children have accused him of sexual abuse—but Cosby is not? How can we still listen to the music of Michael Jackson, an individual accused of victimizing young children? What about Roman Polanski? What about any number of beloved athletes who endorse products we buy, but have been accused of doing terrible things to others?

What role does race play in some of these seemingly double standards? At what point does it become dangerous establishing a moral equivalence between one person’s actions and another’s? Do revelations of past crimes change the impact of major works of art?

These are big questions. And, unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

We live in an age of collective outrage, where misdeeds committed by public figures—the kinds of actions that were once easily forgotten or never exposed in the first place—can become global trending topics in a matter of hours. And though there are obvious dangerous to the public shame machine, there are also important implications: We can no longer choose to be ignorant or oblivious to crimes and sins of the artists and cultural figures that we’ve also put on a pedestal.

Any time we watch a movie or engage with a work of art, we are making a very personal choice. A generation ago, that choice mostly involved whether or not we want to be exposed to that art itself. Now, in an age where we can no longer hide from things we might rather not know about the artists we follow, that choice involves even more complex factors.

There have certainly been times when some consumers—particularly in some Christian circles—have been too quick to boycott products and pieces of entertainment that they deemed offensive. And while there’s certainly a danger in being overly sensitive to differing opinions, there is also a risk in not being willing to stand up against the perpetrators of actual injustices.

As consumers, we are all faced with a choice when it comes to the kinds of art we will pay to see, and the kinds of artists we will ultimately support in doing so.

And, no matter what choice you end up making, we need to remember what we know about the artists we enjoy—that’s a decision that can’t be taken lightly.

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