My philosophy as a film critic is fairly simple: critics matter because expertise must count for something in a just and fair society, and their assessments should be taken seriously, engaged with in good faith, and treated as contributions of some consequence to the greater discussion about our culture. However, no critic can ever tell you that your experience with a film (or a TV series or a song or a book) was wrong or illegitimate. In other words, if you enjoyed something, nobody can—or should be able to—take that away from you.
Critics may make their case persuasively enough to change how you view something. Larger changes to the values of the society in which you live can alter the prism through which you view art. Revelations about an artist can tarnish your experience. But, if a piece of art ever brought you joy, that joy will always have existed, and that’s something to celebrate.
Despite this, every pop culture content mill on the internet has, at some point, published a list of movies that “haven’t aged well”. A wide range of pop culture mainstays have run this gauntlet, having been passed through the lens of modern moral and cultural sensibilities and emerged bruised, battered, and, occasionally, forsaken.
Many of us have had the conversation about fat-shaming and homophobia in the hit television show ‘Friends‘. We’ve grappled with whether the music of Michael Jackson should remain on the radio, whether the films of Woody Allen should remain in theatres, whether Louis C.K.‘s comedy specials and sitcoms should remain on Netflix.
A single question binds of each those conversations: what do we do with works of art that are dragged forward through time and laid at the feet of a more enlightened audience?
“It was a different time”
In 1984’s “Revenge of the Nerds”, affable geek Lewis (Robert Carradine) tricks the pretty girlfriend of his arch-jock-rival into having sex with him by dawning a Darth Vader mask. As easy as it is for us in 2019 to see that this is rape, and as difficult as it may be for us to understand how this wasn’t as obvious to moviegoers in 1984, accepting the progress we’ve made as a society in the intervening 35 years is now inescapably part of the experience of watching “Revenge of the Nerds”.
For many, the baggage that such progress heaps on a film can permanently taint it, and that’s as it should be. Allowing films to age out of the canon is part of growing up as a society, and what we choose to memorialise from our past is how we choose to present ourselves in the present. This is why the British Film Institute updates their Sight and Sound Greatest Films list every decade. If we decide that “Entourage” sympathises too much with a culture of toxic masculinity that we no longer wish to tolerate, then seeking to expunge it from the cultural record makes a certain sense.
The purging of problematic material from our collective memories does not rob us of our capacity to continue learning from our past mistakes, in part because those pieces do not cease to exist just because we turn our backs to them, but mostly because we are constantly generating new art against which we’ll be measuring ourselves further down the road.
The more time passes, the more that the surviving masterpieces of our past deserve to be celebrated. Those that no longer deserve such praise do not leave vacancies in our cultural memory. They make way for the new art that may someday become the longstanding masterpieces of generations to come.
“Separate the art from the artist”
Art with problematic messaging is easily dealt with, but what about great art by problematic artists?
Six grown men have credibly accused pop star Michael Jackson of raping them as children. Famed filmmaker Woody Allen was accused by his own daughter of molesting her as a child. R&B star Chris Brown assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna, hospitalising her with severe injuries to her face and neck. Comedian Bill Cosby has been accused by 60 (that’s six-zero) women of rape. All of these people have produced art that remains, to this day, both positive and influential, and here’s where the conversation about problematic art gets tricky.
The phrase, “separate the art from the artist” gets thrown around a lot in conversations like this. It’s a peculiar sentiment because it’s both valid and emblematic of a double standard in art criticism. We tend to think of artists as morally good if they create morally good art, and consider the moral righteousness of their art an extension of their moral righteousness as people. This kind of association seems to be suddenly severed the moment we learn the artist may not, in fact, be a decent person.
We are willing to accept that bad people are capable of creating good art, because this is true. However, until we learn otherwise, we project the morals of the art onto the artist. This can be something of a two way street, (Adam Sandler, the creative force behind countless juvenile, crude, and mean-spirited comedies, also enjoys a discreet reputation as one of the nicest people in Hollywood, but many who loathe his films consider them reflections of a morally vacant soul) and ultimately reveals that we have never really decided how much our regard for artists influences are relationship to their art.
We struggle with immoral artists because we understand that consuming their art means funnelling our own money into their pockets. We may wish to celebrate the art, but by rewarding immoral artists, are we not sending the message that great art makes evil behaviour acceptable? We cannot reward good art without funding the artists who make it, and we cannot punish villainous artists without diminishing their art.
We struggle with this because holding evil behaviour accountable sometimes means turning away art that we both still enjoy and consider undeserving of the punishment it must endure.
Michael Jackson’s music is still objectively good. Even by the standards of our modern ideas of political correctness, his music would still be nearly universally celebrated if we knew nothing about the King of Pop’s personal life. In admitting that we no longer wish to hear Jackson’s music, we can be justifiably bitter, defensive, and equivocating. After all, we’re not moving on from something because of our own growth. Instead, we’re acknowledging that someone else’s bad behaviour has robbed us of the joy of an experience we once cherished.
Immoral artists force us to move on from art that we didn’t need to leave behind and that we could still enjoy, and it’s important to remember that the joy you felt experiencing that art isn’t made illegitimate by others’ evil deeds. It’s okay to remember such joys and leave them in the past. We don’t need to forget, to move on.
You need not cling to any problematic art or artist. By leaving things behind, you’re not allowing censorship to run rampant, you’re not white-washing history, and you’re not forsaking your own past experiences. You’re just growing, as we all are growing, and updating the cultural icons with which you choose to associate yourself. You can do this without losing the joy you once found in these things. They are part of your personal evolution, flashpoints on the path to a more enlightened future.
Maybe that thing you liked hasn’t aged well. That doesn’t mean you can’t.