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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
The Observer

Why “trust the art, not the artist” doesn't always work

When I was younger and would learn something unfortunate about one of my heroes, such as when I found out someone I looked up to wasn’t as perfect as I believed them to be, my father would offer me some advice. He’d tell me that nobody, even someone we look up to, is perfect. He’d tell me that you can still appreciate all someone has done and acknowledge their personal failings. He’d teach me that old famous adage: trust the art, not the artist.

Almost every great genius had some tragic personal flaw. Steve Jobs was a notorious megalomaniac. Henry Ford was a vehement anti-Semite. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Pablo Picasso was a misogynist. Martin Luther King is often accused of plagiarism.

But should these flaws destroy their legacy? Can we not separate someone’s personal failings from their achievements? After all, all these people accomplished wonders; what they did changed the world. They improved and inspired the lives of millions.

Trust the art, not the artist.

So, when another genius was recently revealed to have some appalling personal failings, I wondered if that adage could still apply. Kevin Spacey is one of the greatest actors of our time. His roles in “The Usual Suspects,” “American Beauty” and “House of Cards” stand among the most brilliant performances in film and television history.

But Spacey isn’t just a great actor. On Oct. 29, actor Anthony Rapp came forward alleging that Spacey sexually assaulted him in 1983 when he was just 14 (Spacey would have been 26). Since then, more than 10 other men have come forward with allegations of assault or abuse. Spacey, for his part, has outright denied some of the accusations, but acknowledged the Rapp incident may have occurred as “inappropriate drunken behavior.” In many of the cases, the men were underage at the time of the assault.

But there’s no reason we can’t all continue to enjoy Spacey’s movies, right? His actions are reprehensible and heinous, of course. But whatever else he is, Spacey remains a talented actor. Can’t we therefore continue to appreciate his works; can’t he finish out the final season of “House of Cards;” can’t I still enjoy “Se7en,” one of my favorite movies? After all, trust the art, not the artist.

Well, maybe not. Practically all of Spacey’s victims were young men who either acted with him or worked on set; they were all, in some capacity, in the Hollywood industry. It’s an industry based almost entirely on who you know, on connections and relationships with big name actors, producers and directors. Knowing someone like Spacey, one of the biggest names in Hollywood? That could open doors you never imagined would be opened. Getting Spacey on your bad side, however, could be detrimental to your career. If you’re a 14-year-old boy who had a traumatic experience with Spacey, speaking out could destroy whatever chance you had in Hollywood.

It is directly because of Spacey’s fame that he was able to abuse these children. This is a recurring theme in Hollywood. Over the past few weeks, sexual assault allegations against powerful men have flooded the internet as more and more survivors have felt it time to shed light on this epidemic. Spacey, Brett Ratner, Harvey Weinstein and others have all used their influence in the industry, and their power over people’s careers, to prey on men and women.

If we continue to “trust the art” — if we give Spacey a pass because of his talent — then we ignore the very means by which he was able to take advantage of so many. We enable his ability to traumatize his victims. We perpetuate a society that ignores survivors of sexual assault and turns a blind eye to its perpetrators.

Spacey is an amazing actor. Nothing will ever change that. But his offenses are far too heinous and speak to a problem far too large to allow him to live on in popular culture as that amazing actor. I don’t know if I can honestly say I’ll never watch “Se7en” again. But in this case, we must never separate Spacey the genius from Spacey the abuser. In this case, trusting the art leaves us far too trusting of the artist.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.