Thought Police – Cancel Culture and The Dilemma of Separating Art from Artist

While J.K Rowling may not go down as the greatest writer who ever lived, there is no denying that she has been the most culturally impactful writer of the 21st century. Her Harry Potter novels not only captured the hearts and minds of a generation of young children and adults alike, but she can also be credited with inspiring a renaissance of reading in a time when screen technology and social media dominate our daily lives. Rowling and her Harry Potter universe became a cultural behemoth as her stories of friendship, heroism and bravery became a part of the diverse cultural tapestry of the early 2000’s. It might surprise some to learn that by 2020 Rowling was the focus of a tirade of criticism as she was denounced and vilified by the very people who loved and adored her. How could the woman responsible for the magic and wonder of their childhood now be seen as worse than the villains she created?

Many might describe aspirations of fame and celebrity as a type of Faustian pact. Selling ones’ soul in return for riches and glory bares a heavy price. Now more than ever celebrities are placed under the microscope of morality and virtue that is online social media. Sites like Twitter have become judge, jury and executioner in a world where we hold celebrities to increasingly higher and higher moral standards. One act or comment out of line can be the death knell in a career. This is precisely what happened to Rowling as her June 2020 comments criticising a Devex article’s use of the phrase, “people who menstruate” instead of the word “women”, saw her labelled as “anti-trans” and “cruel”. Such was the backlash to her comments, actors such as Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, actors who owe their career to her, criticised her publicly and despite Rowling’s attempt to defend her comments, the Twitter gavel had sounded and Rowling had become the latest high profile celebrity to fall victim to cancel culture. The pact had been broken and she had to pay the price.

While Rowling herself may have been cancelled, the world of Harry Potter still exists but for many, their childhood memories have been tainted by her comments as many ask themselves if they can ever enjoy these books again knowing what they now know about the women who wrote them. Rowling has not been the only high-profile victim of cancel culture in recent times. Ellen DeGeneres, the famed comedian and TV host, was accused of bullying and harassment as anonymous former employees of her hugely successful TV show Ellen, accused her of creating a toxic working environment. Ellen, seen by many as an inspiration to due to her openness about being gay, was, much like Rowling, seen to have strayed too far from the path as the hailstorm of Twitter judgement engulfed her. A tearful apology was seen as too little, too late and once again a seemingly perfect individual had shown herself to be human like the rest of us. While Rowling and DeGeneres are two examples of the more high-profile victims of cancel culture, the list is long and ever growing as more and more actors, musicians, comedians, directors… see their 15 minutes of fame cut short, However, can we ever enjoy the work these ‘disgraced’ individuals leave behind as we did before? Knowing what we now know about these people, is there work meaningless?

George Orwell could be said to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century with both 1984 and Animal Farm continually featuring on lists of the top 100 books to read before you die. While Orwell is certainly famous for his fiction, his comments in the autobiographical Down and Out in London and Paris, were it published today, might see the acclaimed author having to defend his words on the Twitter stand. Recounting his interactions with a doorman in Paris, Orwell writes,

“I sometimes worked on a Sunday, for which, although I did not know it, I was entitled to an extra twenty-five francs. The doorkeeper never paid this – I only realised during my last week that I was being cheated. The doorkeeper played similar tricks on any employee who was fool enough to be taken in. He called himself Greek but in reality, he was Armenian. After knowing him I saw the force of the proverb, “trust a snake before a Jew, a Jew before a Greek but don’t trust an Armenian.” Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell

In one paragraph it seems Orwell accomplishes the feat of insulting two nations while also propagating anti-Semitic stereotypes. Without a doubt, were it published today, cries of #cancelOrwell would be trending on Twitter. Orwell’s comments were published in 1933 but yet he seems to escape criticism in discussions on his subsequent, and more well know, publications. Perhaps it is too much work to cancel a dead man.  Similarly the famed artist Pablo Picasso, whose paintings feature in some of the most famous museums around the world, is lauded as a genius yet it is well know that he treated his numerous wives quite badly and was perhaps a paragon of the much vilified idea of toxic masculinity. Despite the praise of his legacy and impact on the art world, we are never met with cries of #cancelPicasso

The next time we visit an art gallery, sit down to read a book or laugh at a joke, is it necessary to ask ourselves how ‘good’ of a person the creator was before we can enjoy their work? Does this person treat others well, do they say thank you when someone holds a door for them, do they have the same opinions as me? Do they vote for who I vote for? Do they believe what I believe? If the answer to any of these questions is no, is that enough for us to say that their work is no longer of any value to us and shouldn’t be enjoyed or appreciated by anyone? Art and the artist, as I see it, are separable and quantifiable. We are never told by the artist to interpret or appreciate their art in a particular way, that is something the artist trusts us to do on our own. They might tell us what inspired their creation, how they felt creating it or what they hope it represents but they cannot tell us how to feel. Art is not a personification of the artist and therefore does not hold the same morals and opinions as the artist. While the artist may project onto and encode their art with certain meaning borne of their own self, we as the audience are free to decode that meaning in our own unique way. We are free to arrive at our own interpretation. To enjoy the writings of Orwell or Rowling is not to say you are anti-trans or anti-Semitic, to laugh at a joke told by Ellen is not to say that you are someone who advocates bullying and to visit an art gallery and admire the paintings of Picasso is not to say you are someone who condones misogynistic behaviour.

Who is anyone to tell us what we can and cannot enjoy? Are we not to be trusted with that decision for fear we make the wrong choice?

The terms of the modern-day celebrity Faustian pact seem tougher and tougher as we continually hold celebrities to seemingly impossibly high standards of morality. God like infallibility seems to be the prerequisite for the reward of fame and fortune but as more and more celebrities fall victim, are we in danger of creating an ideal that no one can reach? The comedian Dave Chappelle, a vocal critic of cancel culture, speaking in his Netflix special Equnimity on why he would stop doing stand-up comedy explained that,

“there is a more important reason why I would stop doing comedy right now and it’s the crowd. Not you, I am talking about the crowd on the big stage. It’ too difficult to entertain a country whose ears are so brittle – they are so sensitive – everything you say upsets somebody”

Many would envy Chapelle’s’ privilege, or bravery, to be able to speak out against those who have put him where he is today, but his words should ring out as a warning more than anything else. In a world of increasing moral scrutiny, will art and entertainment lose their authenticity and individuality as artists seek to adhere to the moral expectations the public have of them? All of this done so as to ensure they do not have a career cut short by an ill-judged comment or tweet? The price for entertainment and art may be that we cannot expect those who create it to be as perfect as it is.

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