Paedophiles, abusers… and selfish mothers? Why cancelling artists is only half the problem

Divisive figures Sylvia Plath, Roman Polanski and Picasso  (Getty)
Divisive figures Sylvia Plath, Roman Polanski and Picasso (Getty)

Three years ago, an actress walked out of an awards ceremony. Adèle Haenel, one of the stars of 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, left France’s César Awards in protest after it was announced that Roman Polanski had been named best director, for J’Accuse – his 2019 film about Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish military officer wrongly convicted of treason. Forty-three years earlier, Polanski pleaded guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor, before fleeing to France ahead of formal sentencing.

“Well done, paedophilia,” Haenel shouted as she left the hall. Several others followed her. “We know how this evening will unfold already,” Polanski had declared in an earlier statement, in which he also announced that he would not attend the awards ceremony because he feared a “public lynching” by feminist activists. “What place can there be in such deplorable conditions for a film about the defence of truth, the fight for justice, blind hate and anti-Semitism?” But Haenel felt that “distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims,” as she told the New York Times after the César nominations were announced, with Polanski’s J’Accuse receiving 12 – the most of any eligible film. “It means raping women isn’t that bad.”

In many ways, this has become the defining debate of our age. Over the past seven years, through the Trump era and onwards, the urgings of the #MeToo movement have curdled into the current right-wing obsession with “cancel culture”. Now, contemporary discourse often seems to resemble the battle between Haenel and Polanski, writ large. Is “distinguishing Polanski spitting in the face of all victims”? What about watching his films – does that mean tacitly endorsing that “raping women isn’t that bad”? If the film is about antisemitism, how does that affect the morality balance sheet? Of course, really all these questions amount to just one, well-worn dilemma: can we separate the art from the artist?

The major issue with the current discourse around these questions is how often it gets caught up in debates about personal morality. Valid critiques of institutions, public acclaim and industry power dissolve into endless questions about individual virtue. The problem emerges again in Claire Dederer’s new book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, published this month, which spins around the question of what to do with the art of “monsters”. A long-time contributor for The New York Times, Dederer wrote an essay for Paris Review in 2017, titled “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” “They did or said something awful, and made something great,” Dederer wrote. “The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing.”

Woody Allen was the “ur-monster” of her 2017 essay – she wrote that his relationship with Soon Yi-Previn, adopted daughter of Allen’s ex-wife Mia Farrow, made her feel “affronted, personally somehow” since she had, as a girl, identified with Allen due to his performative fragility and neuroticism. (Allen has repeatedly denied allegations that he molested adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow.) Yet six years later, in the book commissioned off the back of that viral essay, Dederer admits it is Polanski that dogs her. “It all began for me in the rainy spring of 2014,” Dederer writes in the opening line, “when I found myself locked in a lonely – okay, imaginary – battle with an appalling genius.” It is now nine years later, so readers might expect a thorough examination of how the terms of public accountability have shifted over that time, and where “great work” and aesthetics fit within these reckonings. Yet the issue of institutional treatment – of public distinction, power and, crucially, profit – is ducked in favour of an endlessly prevaricating discussion about individual feeling.

Instead of considering the ways artists prop up and are enmeshed with systems of oppression, Dederer rehashes well-known biographical details about well-known creative figures and ponders. She watches Manhattan and tweets that it makes her feel “urpy”. She has a fragmentary conversation about the film over cocktails in a marble-lined restaurant in Manhattan, with a male critic who judges her for not approaching Allen’s film on aesthetics alone. The entire book is structured through anecdotes like this. I was left with the sense that Dederer had never really got to grips with either the artists in question, or the ways their lives relate to their work.

Rather, the book turns the connected notions of “monstrosity” and the “art monster” over again and again, until both terms seem to lose all meaning. The sculptor Carl Andre is monstrous because he was accused of throwing his wife – artist Ana Mendieta – out of a 34th-floor window to her death (Andre denied any wrongdoing and was acquitted of all charges in a 1988 trial), but Dederer also suggests that Sylvia Plath is monstrous for taking her own life and “abandoning” her children. Similarly, she says Joni Mitchell is monstrous for giving a child up for adoption, years before Roe v Wade. Yet, surely all these “biographical stains”, as Dederer terms them, are not the same, and consumption of, or institutional acclaim for, these artists’ work carries different meanings.

Adèle Haenel walks out of the 2020 César awards after the prize for best director is given to Roman Polanski (Getty Images)
Adèle Haenel walks out of the 2020 César awards after the prize for best director is given to Roman Polanski (Getty Images)

Throughout the book, Dederer’s search for nuance has a flattening effect. “We live in a biographical moment,” Dederer writes early on, “and if you look hard enough at anyone, you can probably find at least a little stain. Everyone who has a biography – that is, everyone alive – is either cancelled or about to be cancelled.” We are all monsters, in other words. Yet, this is such a broad brush to be essentially meaningless. In Monsters, monstrosity is child rape is racism is abandonment is suicide is drunkenness is ignoring your kids to finish writing your book. But, surely any discussion about “cancellation”, accountability and art has to work from the basic tenet that there is a profound difference between raping a child and finishing a book. There are discussions to be had about the selfishness required to make art, but it is also important to attend to scale and social harm. An actress walking out of an awards ceremony is not the same as a “public lynching”.

“I wanted to be a virtuous consumer, a demonstrably good feminist,” Dederer writes, “but at the same time I also wanted to be a citizen of the world of art, a person who was the opposite of a philistine. The question, the puzzle, for me was how I might behave correctly.” Yet, to me, focusing the debate on the individual in this way seems like a bourgeois trap. Rather than dismantling systems of power that not only allow for abuse but are themselves abusive, attention gets diverted to “bad apples”, and consequently the whole issue gets tied up in questions of taste, and “ethical consumption” – on how to spend your personal money, time and attention in ways that best signal to the world that you are “good” and well-behaved.

The complications of battling individuals instead of institutions arose recently when the Brooklyn Museum announced that the comedian Hannah Gadsby – whose 2018 Netflix film Nanette took aim at the male-centric art canon – would be co-curating an exhibition on Picasso. “I hate him,” Gadsby said of the world-famous painter and adulterist in Nanette. “Separate the man from the art. That’s what I keep hearing,” she claimed, before suggesting people erase Picasso’s signature from his paintings and see how much they sell for.

What, I wondered, would the ticket price be for the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, which will presumably feature Picasso’s name, face and iconic signature prominently. But in a way that signals contemporary displeasure, and the dismantling of art canons, right? Not a cynical press event and cash grab? Aside from the possible insincerity of putting on another bumper Picasso show to critique all the previous bumper Picasso shows, there is another glaring problem with this particular attempt to reassess the art world’s “problematic men”. Namely, the Sackler family, who are now famous for two things: amassing wealth from the development and sale of OxyContin – the prescription painkiller that most blame for the opioid crisis in America – and funding art institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Brooklyn Museum.

In an interview with Variety, Gadsby declared that she and the curation team had “vetted this”. “Apparently, they’ve separated their earning streams from the problematic one,” Gadsby said. But, she then said, “take that with a grain of salt. Doesn’t matter what cultural institution you work with in America, you’re going to be working with billionaires and there’s not a billionaire on this planet that’s not f***ed up.” So, are the “earning streams” separate, or not? What does it matter, all money’s dirty, Gadsby seems to be saying. That’s just the art world. The thing is, I agree. But, recognising that personal wealth hoarding is only possible through violence and exploitation, and that the flow of capital is distinctly grubby, should surely lead to a response that protests, argues for a new model. Instead, Gadbsy’s response resembles a shrug. Everything’s f***ed, so what can you do, except put on another show reappraising the reputation of a long-dead man. Because Picasso, he’s the one that needs to be taken down, again, right?

Woody Allen, pictured in 2017 (Getty Images for Turner)
Woody Allen, pictured in 2017 (Getty Images for Turner)

Understandably, the Sacklers get a lot of attention when it comes to questions of art world abuse on a grand scale. Yet, when I think of the ways art and violence are not as distinct as they claim, like church and state, I think of Warren Kanders, who until 2019 was the vice chairman of the board of New York’s Whitney Museum. He is also the chairman and CEO of Safariland – a defence supplier found to have sold chemical weapons to the American military and police, including, infamously, tear gas munitions that had been launched against asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. He resigned from the museum’s board in 2019 following a wave of protests at his involvement, writing that they “threatened to undermine the important work of the Whitney”, but he later announced that he would divest from the business; a report by The Intercept last summer found that his company was still selling tear gas.

In an essay titled “The Tear Gas Biennial”, writers Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett, questioned why participating artists had failed to boycott the Whitney Biennial, given Kanders’s profiteering off the tear gas used against protesters responding to the murders of young Black men by police, and people marching against austerity in Puerto Rico, whose numbers included children. A number of artists subsequently withdrew their work from the Biennial and Kanders left the board. Yet, like the work of Nan Goldin’s direct action group PAIN – which works to hold the Sackler Family accountable and to demand that they fund opioid addiction treatment programs – that essay still feels like the exception proving the larger rule: look the other way. Indeed, it strikes me that wider culture spends more time and energy grappling with the question of whether we can separate the artist from the art than whether we can separate art world “earning streams” from “problematic” ones entwined with corporate and state violence.

In the book Porn Work: Sex, Labour, and Late Capitalism, feminist scholar Heather Berg asks, “how should we talk about consent when there is rent to pay?” The question reveals the essential fallacy of the “art versus artist” debate. Toppling individual “baddies” is not enough to change things – under capitalism, exploitation is written in.

The writer and conceptual artist Sophia Giovannitti also uses Berg’s question to critique the failures of the mainstream #MeToo movement in her new book, Working Girl, which looks at the intimate relationship between the art world and the sex industry. “When not couched in an explicitly anti-capitalist analysis,” Giovannitti writes, “reformist movements to improve the conditions for women facing misogyny and sexual violence at work implicitly value the testimonies of some women over others… and fail to address the foundational structures of workplace abuse, sexual or otherwise, endemic to late capitalism”. The real problem, in other words, is not a few “bad apples” at the top, but deep down in the roots – the entire system is rotten and riddled with violence and abuse.

The art world is a marketplace, which is governed by the whims of billionaires and functions in the service of profit. And, when profit is the ends, the meanest of means get justified. Giovannitti goes on to reference accusations levelled at Knight Landesman, the ex-publisher of Artforum who resigned from the magazine in 2017. In an initial statement on the lawsuit against Landesman, Artforum attempted to deny the legitimacy of the plaintiff, former Artforum employee Amanda Schmitt, suggesting that her accusation that Landesman had subjected her to years of sexual harassment “seems to be an attempt to exploit a relationship that she herself worked hard to create and maintain”.

Picasso in 1946 (Getty Images)
Picasso in 1946 (Getty Images)

In response to this statement, more than 2,000 self-defined “workers of the art world” signed and published an open letter in The Guardian. “We are not surprised when curators offer exhibitions or support in exchange for sexual favours,” the letter asserted. “We are not surprised when gallerists romanticise, minimise, and hide sexually abusive behaviour by artists they represent… we are not surprised when we are retaliated against for not complying. Abuse of power comes as no surprise.” A case against Landesman and Artforum was dismissed in 2019, before the publication eventually reached a settlement with Schmitt in 2021 after emails came to light indicating publishers had been aware of Landesman’s behaviour towards female employees.

Ultimately, in Monsters, Dederer’s prevaricating over personal feeling leads to a nihilistic conclusion. All choices exist within the capitalist system, she says, and so “our consumption, or lack thereof, of the work is essentially meaningless as an ethical gesture”. This strikes me as both a fundamental misunderstanding and a cop out. Essentially, Dederer pronounces “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” in much the same way people justify buying from fast fashion brands. Since there is no way to do no harm, why bother trying to minimise harm at all? Yet the widely used “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is not meant as an excuse to do nothing, but as an urging to attend to questions of profit and power, and fight harder for systemic changes.

While liberals wring their hands over how to be a “virtuous consumer”, there is yet another Picasso show. Louis CK sold out Madison Square Gardens. The latest film from Johnny Depp, a man the UK legal system agreed was a “woman beater”, opened Cannes film festival. “Cancel culture is silencing people,” the right wing cries. Well, many might reply, if only. Meanwhile, Adele Haenel has announced her retirement from the film business. In a letter published on Télérama on Tuesday, she declared that she had “decided to politicise [her] retirement” to denounce the French film industry’s “general complacency... vis-à-vis sexual aggressors”. “It bothers them that the victims make too much noise,” Haenel wrote. “They preferred that we disappear and die in silence.”

Ultimately, it is this institutional silencing that people should be concerned with, and which makes the art world infinitely poorer. The real dilemma is not what to do with the art of monsters, but why being monstrous still pays.

‘Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma’ is out now