Ease off on the moral panic – Hollywood’s sex scandal is far more subjective

The Weinstein allegations have left audiences scratching their heads about what art is now off-limits. And for awards judges it’s even trickier. Hannah McGill asks: where should the lines be drawn?

When multiple sexual misconduct allegations hit the actor Kevin Spacey, director Ridley Scott decided to replace him in the almost-completed film All The Money In The World. This required not only another actor – Christopher Plummer – to step into Spacey’s role, but co-stars to show up for reshoots, which they duly did. One was Mark Wahlberg, whose violent early life comprised a charge of attempted murder (he pleaded guilty to assault, and ultimately served 45 days of a two-year sentence).

Wahlberg has been through due process for his offences and expressed great contrition, but the clash in attitudes to his crimes and Spacey’s misdemeanours is still an interesting one. A moral panic emphasises one form of human wickedness to the exclusion of others. Currently, misconduct of a sexual nature – or even a rumour thereof – deems a person unworthy of employment or public acclaim; other forms of unpleasantness do not.

Fair enough, you might say; these behaviours are not just one-on-one incidents, but symptoms of a deep societal malaise that must be stamped out without pity. To invoke the idea of moral panic isn’t to contradict that, nor to dismiss the validity of many of the allegations being made.

But if artists are to be assessed on their moral character, and their art accepted or rejected accordingly, where are lines to be drawn? “If you laugh at Louis CK now, you’re accepting his worldview,” scolded a Guardian writer when the comedian’s grubby secrets came to light. Is that what we do when we enjoy someone’s artistic output – take on, wholesale, his or her worldview? It’s a conflation with alarming implications, suggesting as it does that consumers of art must inventory the private life and actions of the creator, then becoming complicit in whatever they choose to overlook or accept.

The art itself, meanwhile, is characterised as a Trojan horse for bad ideas. The power of Woody Allen’s films, Richard Brody wrote recently in The New Yorker, is “inseparable” from the accusations that have been made against their director, because “the world that he depicts… is one in which the powerful abuse their power to prey upon the vulnerable”.

If bad people spread dangerous ideas, it also stands to reason – to some – that dangerous ideas issue from bad people. In a recent interview, the novelist Ian Rankin named his most overrated book as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, prompting this fervent agreement from a commenter beneath: “Lolita is a book written by a sick man or a man with a sick imagination… It is disgusting that it is even listed as good literature.” There’s another startling interpretation of the relationship between art and artist – one that makes a serial killer of Bret Easton Ellis, a Peruvian bear of Michael Bond and, um, a bad-tempered homicide detective of Ian Rankin.

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Plummer stepped into the disgraced Kevin Spacey's shoes – and bagged a Golden Globe in the process

The fact that art often seeks to make us feel uncomfortable rather than safe, and that it frequently issues from troubled, intoxicated or anti-social minds, is an issue for a culture seeking to purge itself of unseemly elements. If Kevin Spacey is unwatchable and Louis CK no longer funny, what about the fact that Matthew Broderick got off with a $175 fine for causing an accident that left two people dead; or that Jon Hamm hospitalised someone in a fraternity hazing ritual; or that Cheryl Cole committed assault? Such lists could ramble on forever.

The fact is that most of us operate our own personal exclusion zones, with their own inconsistencies: appalled by the behaviour of Roman Polanski, say, but OK with the liaisons with pubescent girls openly conducted by the rock icons of the 1970s; off Woody Allen forever, but still a Michael Jackson fan; grossed out by Weinstein but happy to give Hitchcock a pass. Such winnowing may not, in fact, have that much to do with the severity or credibility of the allegations, and more to do with how much the art means to us. I wouldn’t feel comfortable listening to Lostprophets since the grim crimes of their singer Ian Watkins were revealed, but that’s no loss, since I’d never heard them to begin with. But Phil Spector shot someone in the face, and while I hardly approve of that, there’s no way I’m giving up Be My Baby.

Awards season beckons, and we’re inevitably set to see this year’s crop of contenders assessed on a good deal more than how beloved their movies are. It might be read as a dig at Spacey that Plummer has a Golden Globe nod for the role he inherited. The shadow of Weinstein looms so large that not only are films that he produced – Wind River, The Current War – frozen out from most prediction lists, but even individuals with career-long connections to him may have seen their chances suffer (particularly if, like Kate Winslet, they’ve also worked with and defended both Woody Allen and Roman Polanski).

But however personal opprobrium is doled out, as we cringe through the edgy gags and debate the winners’ worthiness, it’s worth remembering that the art is not the art. It’s not even necessarily an expression of his or her “worldview”. Of course, we can all settle with our own consciences what influences we admit, and to whom we give our money. But trying to shame others into boycotts and book burnings ignores the subjectivity of such decisions, and the complexity of the relationship between artist and fan.

Hannah McGill is a writer and broadcaster
@HannahJMcGill