To Shun or Not to Shun: Dealing with Artworks of #MeToo Offenders

Is the art really separate from the artist? Experts weigh in.

Updated
Art and Culture
6 min read
Is the art really separate from the artist? Experts weigh in.
i

“Pablo Picasso. I hate him.
But you’re not allowed to.
I hate him.
But you can’t. Cubism.
And if you ruin cubism, then civilisation – as we know it – will crumble.”

Thus begins comedian Hannah Gadsby’s effort to demythologise Picasso in her stand-up comedy act, Nanette. Her anger, in reference to the artist’s misogyny and his affair with a 17-year-old when he was 42 is understandable and justified. But does that mean that we, as society, should disregard the man’s contribution to art – which most would argue is monumental?

Closer home, a reflection of Picasso’s transgressions swept through Bollywood. A long-forgotten actor gathered the courage to speak up against Nana Patekar, one of Hindi and Marathi film industries’ most celebrated actors. In one fell-swoop Tanushree Dutta banished Bollywood’s hitherto silence on #MeToo. Her action gave many women the power to come out against their perpetrators, and within a couple of weeks the list of Bollywood men accused of sexual harassment ballooned.

In the storm that followed, Nana Patekar and Sajid Khan were dropped from their upcoming project Housefull 4, Phantom Films was dissolved, MAMI dropped AIB’s Chintu Ka Birthday and Rajat Kapoor’s Khadak, and Anurag Kashyap stepped down as a board member of the film festival. While the present and future projects of these actors and directors met this fate, what happens to the previous work and legacies of these luminaries is left to us.

Now, while Bollywood may not be the messiah of high art, most of the accused in the industry have works of art to their credit which have stayed with the audience for disparate reasons. Should we then pay heed to Gadsby and boycott all movies featuring Rajat Kapoor or Alok Nath hereon, and never listen to a song sung by Kailash Kher again?

‘Ideally Art Shouldn’t be Coloured by the Artist’s Personal Life’

Leaving it to ‘individual choice’, film critic Baradwaj Rangan says, “It’s a very personal call that people need to take. The best example is the case of Roman Polanski.”

Polanski, an Academy Award-winning director pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in the 1970s.

Rangan further elucidates:

“There are some people who say they will never watch a Roman Polanski film again as a matter of principle, but there are some others who say that the man is different and the art is different, and the fact that Roman Polanski did something horrible does not mean that the greatness of his films is going to go away. I fall in the latter camp... You can go back to Wagner for instance who wrote music for the Nazi party. See it’s a personal call, it’s really something that you have to believe in.”

However, although Rangan believes “once the product is out, then it stands on its own” and “ideally you do not want the art to be coloured by the artist’s personal life”, he agrees things can’t always be dealt with ‘ideally’. He says,

“I cannot go back to the previous seasons of House of Cards and say ‘oh, he (Kevin Spacey) has acted terribly’. The fact that he’s a talented man cannot be denied. The fact that he’s an obnoxious man cannot also be denied. Now it’s up to us to say whether we can keep the talent and the obnoxiousness separate or it’s too confusing and we’d rather not deal with it at all. It’s a very conflicting thing, and I had thought about it for years over the Polanski case because he’s made masterpiece after masterpiece.”

Adding, “And even when I saw The Pianist which came out much after the whole trial… It was so good. It’s coming from such a deep place that… it’s amazing… that movie was stunning, but it’s coming from the same person. What can you do about it?”

‘Art and Artist are Never Entirely Separate’

Differing staggeringly in her views from Rangan is the author of Reading 'Bollywood' and Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, Dr Shakuntala Banaji.

She believes, “Art and culture are never entirely separate from the people who create them. But art and culture can also be evaluated critically in relation to the values and behaviour of their producers and the values they support or embody.”

And if we are evaluating a work critically with regard to the person who’s produced it, does it make sense to also shun the work of artists who might not have been called out for sexual harassment but “persist in making films or writing or speaking in ways that condone misogyny and sexual violence. Might it not be equally important to boycott those products?” asks Banaji.

So, should we boycott the works of art? Yes, if you listen to tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi’s plea to “stop engaging” with sexual predators.

Bhupathi, on Friday, 19 October, vented his rage against sexual harassers in Bollywood, saying,

“... a friend from the talent industry told me everyone is waiting for a month or so for matters to die down and then it will be business as usual… Personally or professionally, I have known and engaged with Suhel Seth, Vikas Behl (sic), Anirban Blah, Chetan Bhagat, Sajid Khan and Anu Malik. That ends today on all accounts.” 

So should we boycott the oeuvre of perpetrators? Only if shunning has a larger end goal to it, says Banaji.

‘What Would Be the Goal of Such a Boycott?’

The decision to shun the art of those accused has punitive intentions – partly economic in nature. And contributing to the ever-deepening pockets of these huge film directors and actors is sure to have a pricking effect on the conscience – at least on the conscience of those who demand a more egalitarian society.

But as Rangan rightly points out, there are films which aren’t commercial in nature, which travel film festivals. How does boycotting these works affect the artist?

Banaji asks,

“Cultural boycotts in the right political circumstances need to have clear goals. For example, the attempt to end apartheid. What would be the goal of this boycott, were it to be called for?” 

“Different groups of people might have different views on that and they need to be brought into conversation with each other somehow,” she adds.

What About Others Involved in the Project?

Probably the most important thing to be considered if you decide to boycott the work of those accused in the #MeToo movement is how this will affect the other people involved in these projects. Will it be fair to them?

Talking to Mid-day, Devanshu Kumar, co-director of Chintu Ka Birthday, one of the films dropped by MAMI as it was produced by AIB, says, “On one hand, we support the movement and my heart goes out to all the victims. But on the other hand, it is our first film. I am too new to know how the industry works.”

‘Hindsight is a Gift’

While the moral dilemma of whether or not to boycott a work of art indeed boils down to choices, there exists a grey area in terms of the magnitude of the art and its significance – that the art is bigger than the artist and can be seen in seclusion.

However, not mythologising the greatness of these artists and denying them a place in our canon will further the fight against patriarchy.

“Cubism is important, it really is. It was a game changer. He (Picasso) freed us from the slavery of having to reproduce believable three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface,” Gadsby says, explaining how Picasso created the possibility of multiple perspectives in painting. But she asks, are any of those perspectives that of a woman?

“Separate the man from the art. That’s what I keep hearing. Why don’t you take Picasso’s name off his paintings and then see how much his doodles are worth at auctions. F***ing nothing. F*** reputation. Hindsight is a gift. Stop wasting my time!” 
Hannah Gadsby on ‘Nanette’
Published: 
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!