Chapter Twenty-Four: The Art Versus the Artist
There's been a lot of debate over the past few years about the right way to react when an artist or creator says or does something widely viewed to be problematic. Now, of course, when placed under a microscope, it's doubtful that any person on this earth could be deemed one hundred percent unproblematic, but human fallibility is not the question here. The question is, where does that leave the art that person has created?
Sometimes, the reaction to finding out certain things about an artist is visceral. It can't be helped. The art can no longer mean what it once did to the consumer. It's tainted. Other times, the reaction is more conflicted, more nuanced, less black and white. This is where there's room for creative solutions and, if we're open to it, perhaps even a deeper understanding of the art itself.
When it comes to tampering with existing material so as to gloss over its problematic aspects, most consumers won't have it. For instance, the Roald Dahl Story Company, and the publisher Puffin Books, enlisted sensitivity readers to evaluate Dahl's work. This is a common enough practice for new works in publishing today, but this team made the choice to rewrite entire sections of some of Dahl's classic works to remove potentially offensive language regarding weight, gender, and race. Given the many amendments and sizable portions not written by Dahl, there was a public outcry, especially considering the author is no longer alive to approve of such editorial liberties to his work.
On the other hand, Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to no longer publish or license six of his works due to racist depictions. Rather than attempting to rewrite well-known books, the company decided to pull them entirely, and instead focus on the remaining, and still vast, catalog of work by the author. Largely, this move was applauded for its acknowledgment of both the issues with the original content, and the idea that standards can evolve, and it's reasonable to say something no longer aligns with those standards.
Another perfectly valid solution to address evolving standards is to include a preface note providing historical context. We saw this approach from The Walt Disney Company, when they included a message at the beginning of some of their older films as they made their way to streaming on Disney+. HBO Max also utilizes a disclaimer on the streaming site that appears prior to the start of Gone with the Wind. The fact of the matter is, there are blatant examples of racist stereotypes in some of these works of art that, although might have been widely accepted or flown under the radar at the time of their initial publication, are wildly offensive and damaging today. Historical context is key, and allows audiences to continue to experience the work while simultaneously acknowledging the potentially harmful impact of the content.
When Fandom Isn't Enough
Our interests grow and change over time. A book series, television show, film franchise, or music catalog we were once deeply obsessed with might not hold our interest so much these days. We've outgrown it, thankful for the joy it once brought, and now ready for a different entertainment obsession to dive in to. Realizing you are no longer aligned with a once-favorite artist and the opinions they share can be as simple as acknowledging that you've outgrown them and you're choosing to move on.
With moving on comes the power of the pocketbook. When we stop spending our hard-earned money on products aligned with people and opinions we can't in good conscience support, we send a message about what we are and are not willing to tolerate. Maybe the artist will feel the impact, and maybe they won't, but we'll know, and we can take some kind of satisfaction in that.
At Noteworthy Communications, we know that broad generalizations make for poor communication. We're not claiming to hold the key to the correct, unimpeachable way to react when an artist or creator crosses a line that we cannot overlook, justify, or forgive. There is no right way. Every instance is unique and brings up different issues that deserve their own conversation. This chapter is merely offering a small fragment of a much larger conversation.
The entanglements between an artist and the work they produce are natural. We cannot have one without the other. However, context is everything and, as with many things in life, what we are willing to endure as a consumer falls on a spectrum. While there is no right response, we can at least take comfort in the fact that we can decide the right response for ourselves, and that there is always new art and entertainment to enjoy.