That tradition lives on today. Recently, the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody responded to sexual assault accusations against Mr. Weinstein by suggesting that while outside information about filmmakers “can be illuminating,” the “better a film is, the likelier that the biography only fills in details regarding what should already have been apparent to a cleareyed viewing.” That’s a bizarre calculation that dismisses discussions of bad deeds based on the talent of the person performing them. The journalist Gay Talese was blunter in his dismissal of Anthony Rapp, the “Rent” star who accused Kevin Spacey of preying on him when he was 14. “I hate that actor that ruined that guy’s career,” he said.
Directors, meanwhile, have justified the mistreatment or plain resentment of women as a gritty artistic choice. Bernardo Bertolucci, the director of “Last Tango in Paris,” boasted that he chose not to fully inform his lead actress, Maria Schneider, of all the details of the film’s infamous butter scene because he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress.” (“I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped,” she said of the experience.) The director Lars von Trier has whipped misogyny into a persona, delighting in riling actresses and selling the stories to magazines as kicky evidence of his transgressive brilliance. The auteur, celebrated for tightly controlling all aspects of the filmmaking, seems only to enhance his reputation by flaunting his control of women.
Meanwhile, the entertainment industry seems quite interested in conflating the art and the artist as long as it helps sell movie tickets. (If Hollywood weren’t invested in selling the people behind the art, the Oscars wouldn’t be televised.) Stars and power brokers are reflexively praised for their societal contributions. Even as they’ve been accused of harassment, Hollywood men have attempted to fend off the charges by trotting out such good deeds. Mr. Spacey cynically chose this moment to announce that he is gay in a bid to spin a harrowing assault tale into a heartwarming coming-out one. Mr. Weinstein countered accusations by dozens of women by mentioning his generous contributions to a scholarship fund for female directors. And Bill Cosby was more than happy to confuse his art with his personal life when he bellowed his old Fat Albert catchphrase — “Hey, hey hey!” — as he exited a courtroom this past summer during his trial for sexual assault.
Louis C.K., one of the most respected and celebrated comedians today, has built a public persona that simultaneously capitalizes on the praise afforded to the provocative auteur and to the Hollywood do-gooder. He’s been hailed as a thoughtful feminist figure, a comic capable of landing unexpected jokes while navigating politically correct positions on the issues of the day. In a memorable bit in his 2013 HBO comedy special, “Oh My God,” he asks: “How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the No. 1 threat to women!” His stand-up routine is obsessed with masturbation but also infused with insights into power and consent, situating him as a kind of ethical pervert, the schlubby male-ally version of the fashionable sex-positive feminist.
At the same time, he’s built alternative-world versions of himself — as in the FX show “Louie” — where he’s tried on the identities of aging creep, attempted rapist and exhibitionist masturbator. He’s also made his character the victim of similar crimes: Louie has been forced to perform oral sex on a date and been anally penetrated by his friend Pamela as he screams in protest. In each case, he recovers easily from the violation — just as Pamela shrugs it off after Louie tries to drag her, kicking and screaming, to bed with him. These episodes garnered acclaim as canny twists on gender politics, and their critical reception was clearly vaulted by their engagement with current debates around consent.
These scenes now play differently. What once looked like creative provocations now read like justifications of a moral universe where women are as complicit in sexual violation as men are, and where sex that begins with force easily gives way to mutual desire.
Men like Louis C.K. may be creators of art, but they are also destroyers of it. They have crushed the ambition of women and, in some cases, young men — boys — in the industry, robbing them of their own opportunities. The comedians Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov said that after Louis C.K. cornered them and masturbated in front of them at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2002, they feared that speaking out about the incident could risk their careers. While Louis C.K. felt free to flaunt the behavior throughout his comedy — in one scene of “Louie,” Pamela begs him not to start masturbating in front of her — the women were silenced. He took advantage of them, then took ownership of the experience.
Another performer, Abby Schachner, said her own inappropriate run-in with Louis C.K. discouraged her from pursuing comedy altogether. (As he himself put it in an apology released on Friday: “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”) Our assessments of men’s contributions to an art form ought to be informed by the avenues they have closed off for other artists.
Perhaps, instead of considering the possibility of separating the art from the artist, it’s instructive to think of the impossibility of separating the artist from his industry. Louis C.K. is not just a comedian and director but also a gatekeeper and tastemaker, whose reach has stretched far beyond his idiosyncratic projects. Film is an art and also a business, though one that can lack the human-resources infrastructure of corporate America. No one makes that clearer than Mr. Weinstein, who stands accused of corrupting the artistic process to take advantage of women even as he has strong-armed his films to Oscar gold.
Those offended by the opportunities artists have lost in recent weeks should know that casting choices that feel like artistic decisions have almost always been economic ones. After Ridley Scott chose to cut Mr. Spacey from his already completed film “All the Money in the World” and reshoot his scenes with Christopher Plummer, The Associated Press reported that Mr. Plummer was actually Mr. Scott’s first choice for the role. The studio, however, had demanded a bigger name — until that big name became a big liability.
The habit of treating artists as transcendent creators rather than as players in an economic system serves to protect them from typical workplace expectations. And in the same way that a sneaker or technology company tries to distract the consumer from vile production processes by churning out covetable products, Hollywood serves up spectacles that seek to conceal the conditions under which they’re made.
Many of these works make the consumer complicit in the perspective of the abuser. Even the casual objectification of, say, Brett Ratner’s “Rush Hour” series — so often written off as harmless fantasy — is constructed to elevate men’s desires over women’s lives. And some such scenes are leveraged by directors and producers looking for opportunities to place actresses in vulnerable positions, as when James Toback — director of such psychosexual films as “Two Guys and a Girl” — instructed Selma Blair to undress alone in his hotel room on the pretext that she was auditioning for a role.
What do we do with these people? It seems uncontroversial that offenders who remain in positions of power ought to be unseated to prevent further abuses. As for the art, we can begin to consider how the work is made in our assessment of it.
This conversation is often framed, unhelpfully, as an either-or: Whose work do we support, and whose do we discard forever? HBO cut ties with Louis C.K. on Thursday, dropping him from a coming benefit show and removing his comedy specials from its on-demand service. The first move seems wise, but the second feels perhaps counterproductive. Louis C.K.’s comedy specials are artifacts of both his comedic artistry and his self-justifying persona. Some viewers may not want to see Louis C.K.’s face again, but others could find illumination in watching his work with a new eye.
None of this is to say that it’s never valuable to consider a piece of art on its own terms, or that biographical details necessarily make for illuminating connections. Many personal lives are simply boring, and works with well-meaning politics can be very bad. (See: Keith Urban’s new male-ally anthem, “Female.”) But the insistence that the two always be separated feels suspect. Some who advocate this worry that too much biography can spoil our appreciation of the art. But women and other marginalized audiences are already accustomed to managing the cognitive dissonance of finding meaning in art that ignores us, or worse.
Drawing connections between art and abuse can actually help us see the works more clearly, to understand them in all of their complexity, and to connect them to our real lives and experiences — even if those experiences are negative. In this light, some aspects of the work can seem more impressive. The knowledge that Ms. Blair or Lupita Nyong’o weathered harassment in their careers only makes their performances even more extraordinary. If a piece of art is truly spoiled by an understanding of the conditions under which it is made, then perhaps the artist was not quite as exceptional as we had thought.