Art Versus the Artist: Can I Still Enjoy Lou Reed Even Though I Know He Was A Raging Misogynist?

The #MeToo movement has implicated countless celebrities as sexual harassers and perverts. The extent of abuse is pervasive, yet resentfully, not unexpected. Gods who hold up the pantheon of pop culture have been consistently accused of sexual misconduct throughout history. It is common knowledge that Rock ‘n Roll legend, John Lennon, was a domestic abuser. King of Weirdly-Hot-and-Edgy Roles, Johnny Depp, is accused of much of the same. Social justice writers are reaching for low hanging fruit when they bring up Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s ordeal. We are left with a surplus of art that is historic in its cultural relevance and influence, but is tainted by the actions of its creators. These names mentioned are but a few, and the easier to recognize, of the accused. They serve as representative examples of a larger problem with the consumption of art and the value it has been endowed with by virtue of the glorified persona of celebrities who create it.

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It’s not like these men are the only ones capable of producing memorable work. It seems important to account for equally talented individuals free of criminal accusations that may or may not succeed in disseminating their art. Among those hordes, there likely exist talents that never rose to fame for the same reason these white men managed this feat: privilege – or lack of it. But it is difficult to speak in hypotheticals when faced with the tenacity of history as it has come to pass. What does one do about the art that already exists, and is, despite everything, significant to society and culture?

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One cannot take back the hundreds of Beatles songs that still frequent playlists. What’s more, one cannot ban the hundreds of bands they inspired, the numerous sub-genres they managed to trickle into, and their reach beyond music: into fashion, history, language. On the other hand, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street perhaps has a wonderfully theatrical and enjoyable gothic atmosphere that performs a somewhat simplistic critique of class-division. However, the recent news of Amber Heard’s painful relationship with Depp serves as a harsh reminder of the privileges he enjoys that allows him to go on making films. Midnight in Paris still has incisive commentary on the nostalgia and Golden-Age mentality. But going to watch it in the theatre, I realize in retrospect, may have been an act of conformity.

While evaluating art, its proximity in terms of historical time to one’s own lived moment is a factor to be remembered. This is not to say, the older the art, the more complacent one is in its reception, regardless of its context. Rather, men who are still in an active position of influence need to be addressed urgently, especially when violence goes unpunished.

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Lou Reed is a strange example, though by no means unique. Radical in his reconceptualization of melody, outspoken in his resentment with the then prevalent conversion therapy, and an inspiration to infinite musicians, not many know that he was a misogynist, as revealed in Notes from The Velvet Underground by Howard Sounes. The book also reveals troubling racist language Reed used. It’s a difficult path to navigate when violent people create the art that has already inspired, holds sentimental value and is radical in other ways.

Lou Reed joins the group of men who no longer actively abuse their privilege, by virtue of his death. To suggest conscious consumption of such art is not satisfying and doesn’t feel radical in the least. But it does offer a semblance of a solution. We can neither forget the crimes committed by these artists nor can we forget their significance in society. Until a better, more intelligent answer comes about, I will choose to be critical of the artists that made much of the work I love. They remind me that while the art is beautiful, it comes at a cost: one that should ideally never be paid. They also serve as a reminder that there are people who receive this art and recontextualize it, or are inspired by it to create radical and revolutionary content.

As for the future of art, the answer is clear. The artwork is never above the individual; the only option is to be critical. In my opinion, no art, however grandiose, can excuse abuse. People harming others cannot be allowed to evade persecution in the name of a higher artistic ideal. The personal life of the artist is now more public than ever, for better or worse. Speak out, and consume critically.

 

Edited by Ananya Khandelwal (UG 2021)