Whatever else “cancel culture” might be about, when it comes to the arts, it’s about this—if you want to do right as a consumer of art, the work of some artists is off the table. Whether it’s painters or pop stars, when these artists cross the moral line, we are supposed to cut their art out of our lives completely.
I think this view is mistaken, but not because I’m some aesthete who thinks ethics has nothing to do with art. Rather, I think this view is wrong for ethical reasons. Being an ethical art consumer doesn’t actually have much to do with what art you consume. It’s how and why you engage with that art that matters.
I’m talking here about your average art consumer. If you are a person in a position of power in an arts institution, whether it’s a museum, a publishing house, or a production company, then it very much does matter what artists you work with. You are uniquely positioned to help prevent predatory artists from capitalizing on their fame to exploit vulnerable people. The Bill Cosby enablers of the arts world have done wrong, and the position I advocate here offers them no cover.
On the contrary, it’s because the average art consumer lacks power to prevent malicious artists from acting wrongly that other ethical considerations begin to matter. The contention that you should avoid the work of immoral artists depends on the idea that doing so achieves some good. In reality, it accomplishes nothing. I’m sorry to break it to you, but it makes no difference whether or not you stream a Woody Allen movie tonight or browse Chuck Close paintings on the internet. Even if a widespread boycott might send a signal—itself unlikely—your individual participation isn’t going to affect the bottom line.
The thing is, making a concrete difference isn’t all that matters morally. What we think and feel is morally significant too, and the arts are among the best conduits we have for engaging our thoughts and feelings.
Let’s say you followed the R. Kelly trial and you’re rightly concerned about what you heard about his abuse of young women and girls. Why think that avoiding all of R. Kelly’s music is an ethically important way to grapple with his actions? Maybe it would make you feel good, even righteous—but if you really want to sit with your moral discomfort about R. Kelly, it’s hard to think of a better way than by listening to “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” a sultry R&B track that Kelly wrote for the then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah, to whom he was secretly married. You will not be able to forget Kelly’s misdeeds if his songs remain in your rotation, even benign hits like “I Believe I Can Fly.”
It can be a relief to ignore disturbing stories that we read in the news, and cutting an artist’s work out of your life can be just another form of avoidance. Opportunities for moral reflection, prompted by engaging with artwork, can help us avoid the impulse to simply turn away from the wrongs of the world. That doesn’t mean that any engagement with R. Kelly’s work would be beyond reproach. Blasting “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number” with your windows down as a statement of pro-Kelly solidarity would be obscene. The point is that engaging with Kelly’s music need not be viewed as a way of endorsing or ignoring his immorality—it can also be a way of taking it seriously.
Especially when it comes to artists we love, the revelation that they are abusers or bigots can lead to emotional turmoil. Art punctuates important moments in our lives, whether it’s a song you danced to at your wedding or a favorite movie you shared with a parent. The immoral actions of beloved artists can taint more than just their art—they can intrude into our emotions and memories, creating a heart-wrenching tension between nostalgia and disdain. Maybe you adore Harry Potter but are disgusted by J.K. Rowling’s transphobic commentary. Maybe “Thriller” shaped your dance aesthetic but you struggle with the child abuse allegations against Michael Jackson. Banishing works we love from our bookshelves or playlists might help us avoid this discomfort, but eschewing art we’re truly attached to won’t help us improve our emotional lives. After all, ethics isn’t only about avoiding harm to others—it’s also about living a flourishing life. It’s hard to live the “good life” when you’re at emotional sixes and sevens with art that you love and the ethical dilemmas they ignite.
If we want to process conflicting feelings and achieve emotional balance, art has a role to play. Engaging with the work of immoral artists can be cathartic, not in the sense of expunging our emotions, but of clarifying them. In revisiting the artwork, we may find that the artist’s actions have infected it so deeply that there’s nothing left for us to appreciate; or, we may discover that our affection for the work can be maintained alongside contempt for the artist’s misdeeds. Maybe in rereading Harry Potter, you find that the values expressed in the story are flatly inconsistent with transphobia, and this offers you a way to maintain your love of the work while recognizing the flaws of the artist. Maybe you discover that zombie dancing has lost its charm for you, despite the apparent disconnect between “Thriller” and child abuse. The artwork provides a lens for reflecting on our feelings, and perhaps the promise of sorting them out.
None of this is to say that you must engage with the work of immoral artists. You might still choose to avoid their art. Maybe you just don’t like it, maybe it makes you feel sick. But just as we would be loath to dictate what art people must engage with, we should be wary of social pressures that decree what they can’t. The moral misdeeds of artists matter and should be taken seriously. The mistake lies in believing that people who engage with their work can’t themselves be morally serious.