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Interpretations of art consumption in the #MeToo Era

The #MeToo movement is, undoubtedly, a crucially important revolution in the gender culture of corporations and industries. #MeToo revealed to the mainstream public the exploitation of power discrepancies that was taking place among celebrities and directors through social media and news outlets. The majority of instances took place between men of higher power in the industry and younger females trying to gain traction in their career, but #MeToo also saw some female culprits as well as male victims. With these events having jarred much of the unknowing public, the revelations that came from #MeToo left many questions.

Critics of the culture created by the #MeToo movement remarked on the lack of due process for the accused. But in response to this idea, I would be inclined to agree with the opinion of defenders of #MeToo that the unearthing of oppression in an industry shrouded in secrets does more good for society that bad. Legally, due process is very important to serving the ideals of justice. Any court is obligated to assume an accused individual’s innocence until arguments of law confirm or dissuade that assumption. However, when talking about society, I believe the movement’s uninhibited momentum is vital to abolishing major cultures of oppression even if at the social expense of the few. This is not to say that we should stop listening to the defenses and apologies of the accused. But responses from the accused should not be allowed to drown out the voices of the victims. Individual accusations being found false should not overshadow or stigmatize the movement as a whole.

Whether one agrees with my stance on how we should absorb and react in order to maximise the effectiveness of the movement, the momentum #MeToo had in the past year signifies no foreseeable end to the #MeToo era. This is likely because of the bursting of the “conspiracy bubble,” leading to an unstoppable flurry of revelations. Despite anyone’s effort to slow the movement down, #MeToo will continue to expose unethical power exploitation in the mainstream eye, bringing both undeniable social good and undeniable social consequence.

Setting aside the debate of the social ethics of the #MeToo movement itself, the social consequences of #MeToo requires their own artistic considerations. From an analytical perspective, how should we deal with the works of Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey and Asia Argento as artistic consumers who morally oppose their behavior? There are many different ways to approach this issue.

We can start with the theoretical attachment between an artist and her work. An essay called “The Death of the Author” written by Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, provides a helpful postulation in navigating this subject. Barthes argues that the author or artist’s identity should be seen as negligible when engaging in literary criticism and experience. Barthes writes, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.” The intent and identity of the author, Barthes believes, has no bearing on the meaning of the text. More specifically, he feels that applying the author’s experience and identity as a lens to a text gives an undue sense of finality to its meaning. With this interpretation of art, those who were accused of egregious wrongdoings in the #MeToo movement can still be appreciated for their art, separately from their personal identity. Whether an artist’s behavior is moral, immoral or even antithetical to the intended message of her own art, the artist’s texts should be analyzed and appreciated on their own if “ad hominem” critiques of art are to be considered invalid.

However, I would have to disagree with Barthes’ perspective and, as in Barthes’ own essay, my point is best expressed through a specific example. Louis C.K. was always known for being a bit of a raunchy comedian. He would often incorporate very explicit and gross jokes, commonly in reference to sad sexual tendencies.

This was a notable aspect of C.K.’s style as, while the audience might be grossed out at times, he was often describing an accurate account of the thoughts and experiences of an older man. But there were moments in C.K.’s sets where he would engage in clear hyperbole. He would sometimes use this hyperbole to demonstrate his account of the older or sad male perspective. These jokes would very often be perceived well because the hyperbole represented C.K.’s shift into playing a character: a caricature of the sexually needy or gross man.

The audience is safe to assume in this mix of relatable perspective and excessive illustration that C.K.’s true self is a much tamer version of what he describes. This assumption quickly becomes non-assumable when taking into consideration the accounts that were published in The New York Times about C.K.’s problematic behavior towards some female comedians. Given this new information, it is hardly possible to hear some of C.K.’s jokes the same way. A few of C.K.’s bits almost reenact small parts of the events of The New York Times’ accounts or remark on a line of thinking that closely resembles the mindset C.K. characterized as having in the testimonies.

The key idea is that these testimonies, which revealed more about C.K.’s true character, changed the meaning behind many of his jokes from being hyperbole to being based on true experience. Because the meaning of his art is so closely tied to his character, it is very hard to perform the Barthesian detachment on C.K. and his jokes.

But what does this mean about the ethics of art consumption? Assuming that, for a consumer of art, an artist’s identity is not only relevant to the meaning of the work, but often inseparable from it, it would follow that an artist and their art are one in the same. If society deems the artist less valuable, the meaning behind their work suffers as well. I believe this to be the rule which governs the fate of art created by accused artists.

Consuming art made by the artists in question is an ethical grey area. Almost all of the art that those artists have produced still carry value outside of the controversies, yet should we, as concerned individuals, be contributing to a wrongdoing artist by consuming their work? Amidst this and many other difficult questions, one thing remains true: Experiencing art by those artists will be forever changed as a result of this social revolution.

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