Problematic Art and Artists: A Guide by Albert Wiltfong

Everyone is problematic. I’m problematic. You’re problematic. As much as we try not to be, I’m sure the cast is problematic in some form. But that’s okay as long as we learn; that’s how we as a species progress. We change, we evolve in perspective and sometimes persona. If all goes right, we are not the same people we were four or five years ago.

Alright, now let’s talk about art. Art is a weird, undefinable thing that basically serves as a communication tool. What we can’t express in everyday terms, we express in art. In most forms, art is expressed as a story because stories are the easiest form of art to understand, from which we can derive endless meanings. Everybody takes away something different, which is what makes art so cool..

In my eyes, all films are art, even the ones I hate, even the ones I think are just meh, all stories are trying to say something. Even if that something is “Explosions are cool” (they are), or “I’m just in it for the paycheck”, it’s still a statement. Dogcopter sums it up nicely in this clip from Steven Universe (fittingly, it’s a dream sequence):

I’m sure it’s a very common and disappointing experience when you really love a director, actor, movie studio, etc, and you find you something about them personally that upsets you, either deeply or just on a superficial level. Whether it be how they are on a daily basis, or something they did once, you’ve just learned it and can’t forget it. It’s there every time you watch one of their movies. What do you do? How do you filter that out? Do you filter it out? Do you shun their work altogether?

Well friends, I’m afraid there are no easy answers to this. I struggle with it every day in the art I absorb. I’m a huge Beatles fan (seriously, from Childhood, I know almost all there is to know) and it’s kind of hard to know that John Lennon was supposedly an abusive bastard, especially given his image of wanting peace. I have a copy of Watchmen on my shelf (both the book and movie), even though Alan Moore is a toxic personality and Zach Snyder made Sucker Punch (see our episode about it). If you’ve listened to our most recent episodes, you’ll note that we as cast actively do not talk about Johnny Depp anymore because of accusations coming out in his divorce proceedings that he abused his wife. This is a collective choice on our part.

Okay, some personal examples of artists’ work who I’ve outright shunned because of who they are or what they’ve done. I used to love Woody Allen, but after reading Dylan Farrow’s Open Letter to the New York Times, I cannot, in good conscience, watch another Woody Allen film (not because of the letter by itself necessarily, but it’s the final nail in the coffin to a disturbing narrative). I like what I’ve seen of Roman Polanski’s films, but I’ve quietly abstained from watching any more because he’s not allowed in the United States due to being wanted for having sex with a 13-year-old. I not-so-quietly refuse to see or patronize Victor Salva’s films (Powder, the Jeepers Creepers series, etc) because he’s a known pedophile. I know you’re sensing a theme here, and that brings me to my next point.

At what point do you just stop ingesting a person’s lifes’ work altogether? Okay, this is an extreme, but sometimes it is necessary. The Point of No Return is a different line for everybody. One of my artist lines is child molestation, I cannot abide it, I cannot separate it out, and therefore shun it. I had a friend in high school who’s mother would not let them play video games or watch movies that included human-on-human violence because their father (thankfully long gone by the time I knew them) was a monster. That doesn’t necessarily denote a particular artist, but it belies something than can help in identifying the Point of No Return, which is a trigger. (Mind, I have no triggers in my personal experience that would avert me to wanting anything to do with child molesters, I just think it’s a monstrous thing to do to another human being). My point is, absolutely everyone’s line is different in this respect.

So that’s the extreme, but what do you do when an artist falls short of that personal Point of No Return? Well… nobody’s perfect. And some are more not perfect than others. But people are problematic, and art is an expression of personal feelings by the artist, so it’s inevitable that some of that problematic-ness will leak out into the art. And you know what? That’s fine as long as you can deal with it. And I’m not saying ignore that it’s there. For god’s sake DO NOT IGNORE THAT IT’S THERE. As with any problem, you have to acknowledge it. Call it the hell out. After you’ve done that, you can go on enjoying the parts of the art or artist’s work that you do enjoy.

I must end by saying that it’s not okay to judge people by the works they love. People like the art that they like, and they might like it for surprising reasons. Sometimes people can’t define why they like a piece of art. They might call it a “guilty pleasure” if they think they shouldn’t like it (but I’m here to tell you it’s okay if you do). Art can be interpreted a million different ways, and I guarantee you that if we go to see the same film in the same theater, we will walk out having seen two different films because we carry our experiences with us into that theater, and that’s the beauty of art. I’ve told you my reasons for not wanting anything to do with Woody Allen anymore, and if you continue to watch and like his films, I’m not going to judge you, because my reasons are personal to me and me alone. That applies across the board.

So go forth, and enjoy problematic art! But don’t let it off the hook! By calling it out you’re helping the society that made it learn and make sure it never happens again.


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