Industry realities demand that academia contextualize art

[Content warning: This column discusses sexual assault and violence.]

Last month, over 50 allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein created a media storm and, in its wake, scores of individuals across the country have gone public with their own experiences of sexual violence.

Since then, further reports of violence by entertainment figures have surfaced. Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K. and filmmaker Brett Ratner have all come under fire in recent weeks for sexual misconduct, and with some of America’s most celebrated artists’ true nature laid bare, an important examination of ourselves as patrons of their work has begun to take shape. Can we separate creator from creation, and if not, how do we go about trying to remove the stains of their misdeeds from our culture?

There is, of course, no easy answer to this question, and the fall of figures beloved by and inspiring to a countless number of us has understandably given people pause. On one side, many have argued that the personal flaws of an artist need not necessarily proscribe positive appraisals of their works. Some have rejected the notion that any connection should be drawn between the actions or beliefs of artists and their oeuvre, unless the artist intended for such a connection to be made.

Others, however, insist that this understanding denies the essential nature of artistic expression—that people bring all of themselves and their experiences to what they create, not just their redeeming qualities. This is particularly true in the case of Louis C.K., for example, the charm of whose comedy seemed to be the stark honesty with which he approached even the darkest of subjects, including his own perverted sexual thoughts. It is hard not to see Louis C.K.’s comedy in an entirely new way in light of his recently discovered past, for just as our own pasts inform what we do today, so his actions must have informed how and what he created. It is precisely this type of holistic engagement that many believe is necessary in assessing artists and their work, however difficult it may be for us.

Just as scholars and audiences judge works of art in the context of their respective genres, drawing parallels, say, between a painter’s brushwork and that of a predecessor the artist had studied, equally so should created works be viewed in light of the social and historical factors that led to their creation.

The argument in support of divorcing a creator from their creation masks a critical aspect of any film, book, design, sculpture or play. All artists and creators internalize their experiences and social environments and incarnate—consciously or not—these learned behaviors, attitudes and perceptions in the works they produce.

As recent testimonials make vividly clear, the contemporary film industry has a history of male domination stemming from its earliest inception in Hollywood and even before. Many male creators within this framework today perpetuate the dismissive attitudes and outright violence and exploitation that have largely kept women from the artistic and personal freedoms, public prominence and basic safety that men have been allowed to enjoy, often at their expense.

Awareness of these revealing social contexts and their consequences, then, aids in a fuller understanding of works of art created under these circumstances. As a recent New York Times article expressed, what can be viewed as subversive or artistically novel in works made by many of the men accused of sexual violence is in fact quite the opposite.

The aesthetic qualities that some prioritize in their appreciation of these works, such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s defense of honest performances in “Last Tango in Paris” and Louis C.K.’s role reversals in explorations of feminism, in actuality represent fantasies of their male creators. Films and shows afford these men even more freedom than they already have to act out transgressive behavior and cross lines that exist, however tenuously, in day-to-day life, all under the veil of art (The New York Times, “How the Myth of the Artistic Genius Excuses the Abuse of Women,” 11.10.2017).

One arena in which these aesthetic qualities are evaluated and in which seemingly definitive interpretations of art are decided is academia. The general public may give an initial thumbs up or down, but scholars, whose opinions we generally regard highly, hold great power over whether a work is enshrined and can even revivify works largely forgotten or overlooked by the public.

In this way, and especially in light of the current revelations and debate, we as members of an academic community must take a critical eye toward how we learn about and evaluate created works. While it is true that decontextualization can serve a didactic purpose in analyzing style or the progression of ideas, no creator exists in a vacuum, and thus no work should be presented solely in a sanitized way. Classroom discussions of individual books, paintings or films, whatever the intentions of these projects are, should include information about their creators and in what context they came about. More than merely rooting out incriminating information to denounce famous works, this spirit of holistic learning fosters a greater understanding of both the creations we study and of the fields of study handed down to us.

That’s not to say that Vassar as a whole isn’t already challenging preconceived notions. Certain professors and courses in the Music, English, Drama, Art History and Film Departments make an active effort to call their respective canons into question, present a fuller picture of the works they examine and, in doing so, expand the breadth of their fields of study. We applaud these efforts and call on these and other academic departments to actively encourage more holistic considerations of the curricula they teach.

Academia, moreover, is itself rife with structural barriers that limit access to knowledge and higher-education jobs and stifle the expansion of many fields. These barriers, in turn, reflect and bolster the harsh realities of most of the fields whose products academics study, notably the inequalities and violence that women face. Students and faculty at Vassar, the milieu that gave rise to professor emerita of art history Linda Nochlin’s pioneering 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” must continue to think critically about the materials we study and the ways in which we study them. Not doing so maintains the status quo—inequality, violence, cultural norms and all.

Turning a critical eye toward our academics, and toward the study of art specifically, is not a question of erasing the history we study in order to start anew. Rather, this approach would serve to augment and deepen our comprehension of that history. If Vassar as an educational environment overlooks historical and artistic context, we not only perpetuate the exclusionary nature starkly exemplified in the abuse and predation of the film industry, we also do a disservice to students in depriving them of valuable information that opens the door to a fuller understanding of the humanities—a study, after all, supposedly rooted in uplifting humans.

—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.

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