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Is it rational to condemn an artwork for an artist’s personal immorality?

There is a long history of concern over art created by people who have done horrible things. (Hitler’s paintings are one classic source of controversy.) The #MeToo movement has shown just how widespread such cases are. It is one thing to condemn Chuck Close, James Levine, or R. Kelly for their alleged wrongdoing, but another to regard their artworks as though they were somehow polluted by association with their creators.

“Magical contagion” is the inclination that people have to act as though the essence of a person can be transmitted to another via some object associated with that person. This inclination is widespread and persistent. In one experiment, subjects were asked to imagine that a sweater had belonged to someone evil, like Hitler, and asked to try it on. Most subjects were reluctant try it on, simply from having imagined an association with Hitler. People don’t want to associate with material things that are associated with evil.

Art, more than ordinary objects, is often associated with the moral character of their creators. For example, Confucius claimed that the music of the great sage-king Shun was superior to the music of lesser kings (Analects 3.25). Art made by virtuous artists is beneficial; art made by vicious and cruel people is dangerous.

While this inclination is widespread, it is not clear that it is rational. There is no plausible physical explanation of how a person’s moral essence could be transferred: first to an artwork, and thereby to an audience.

However, there is another way to make sense of this inclination besides belief in magical contagion. Consider what Ted Cohen called “affective communities.” These are communities of people who care about a work of art, and so come to see one another as members of a community. Caring about an artwork brings the audience into a relationship with others who love the same work, and sometimes with the artist her- or himself.

Some of these communities are well-known and clearly established: Bloomsday, the Harry Potter “Wizarding World,” Trekkies, and so on. But a community need not be so large and well-known: Cohen’s own example is the small but intense group of admirers of Elaine May’s infamous flop Ishtar (1987).

Three features of such communities seem to make the moral character of the artist particularly salient to enjoyment of the artwork.

First, some artists play an active and visible role in those communities. Some artists, particularly performing artists, interact publicly with fans. Bill Cosby, while awaiting trial for sexual assault, engaged his audience at stand-up concerts that doubled as attacks on his accusers. Affective communities around such artists are more likely to be attentive to the details of the artist’s life.

Second, some artists’ works themselves highlight moral ideas in important ways. Many of Woody Allen’s films foreground the problem of how to live morally, and the difference between justice and injustice. Affective communities centered on such works naturally attract attention to moral qualities.

Third, some affective communities are highly salient and the members of the community are visible to one another. Some communities thrive on social media; others have frequent in person events, like Star Trek conventions. Contemporary artists and artworks are more likely to have active, highly public communities than artists and works of the distant past.

The degree to which a community has or lacks each of these features collectively determines whether it makes sense for individual audience members to care about, and possibly distance themselves from, certain artworks. The presence of the artist in the community makes the person of the artist important; the importance of moral ideas in the artist’s work focuses attention on moral questions; and the public nature of the affective community makes the members important to one another.

Consider an affective community centered around an artist who is credibly accused of being a sexual predator. Such a community (if it is large enough) will likely contain some members who have themselves been sexually assaulted and who find it painful to continue to associate with the artist or their work. One way that other members of the affective community can show concern and compassion for them is by refusing to participate in such a community.

So it can be perfectly rational to choose to disassociate from affective communities that form around artworks made by bad people. And such a choice need not reflect a commitment to a belief in magical contagion.

This explanation does not work for a private fan—a person who admires an artwork but who does not see themselves as a member of any kind of affective community. This private fan would not have any reason to distance himself or herself from the work of a vicious artist. And this seems right. A private fan, however, does still have reason not to enrich a bad artist by buying their recordings, attending their concerts, or the like—particularly if they might use these funds to continue their wrongdoings, or evade justice for those wrongdoings. But private enjoyment of works by bad artists is not inherently wrong.

Feature image by Christian Fregnan on Unsplash

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