When Bad Men Define Good Art

We talk about separating art from artist, but many of the accused abusers aren’t creators—they’re gatekeepers

What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” asked Claire Dederer in The Paris Review last month. When genius creators like Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski are also known to be criminals and abusers, does it become somehow immoral to appreciate their work? Or, by contrast, is it unacceptable not to appreciate it, to let emotions like revulsion stand in the way of a purely intellectual appreciation of skill? When Dederer finds herself unable to sit through Woody Allen’s Manhattan without nausea, is she doing right by the victims, or wrong by the auteur?

It’s an interesting thought experiment, one we keep coming back to again and again — though rarely with more urgency than in the last few years, and then especially the last few months, as more and more abusers are unmasked. Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Is it ethical? These are the sorts of philosophical questions that launch thousands of words of text. (Here’s Pacific Standard in 2014. Here’s The Guardian in 2013. Here’s Newsweek in 2009.)

But meanwhile, as we wrestle with the questions of what to do with morally hideous artists, we ignore the more hideous truth: Most of the men whose abuses are now coming to light aren’t makers of art. They’re gatekeepers.

Most of the men whose abuses are now coming to light aren’t makers of art. They’re gatekeepers.

Two and a half weeks after Dederer’s essay was published in The Paris Review, that publication’s editor, Lorin Stein — the person tasked with setting the magazine’s artistic vision and selecting the writing that does and does not appear — resigned due to accusations of sexual misconduct. He’s only the latest literary gatekeeper to fall. Hamilton Fish, president and publisher of The New Republic, resigned under similar circumstances in November. Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor of The New Republic, had a new magazine scuppered by harassment claims.

In the entertainment world, too, the abuses are being perpetrated not only by people whose art we can hand-wring over — the writers, the actors, the directors — but by the people behind the scenes, the ones deciding whose voices get heard. Harvey Weinstein, in many ways the hard-falling rock that set off this avalanche, was not a creator but a producer. “The accused are men who help to determine what art gets seen and appreciated — and, crucially, paid for,” wrote Rebecca Traister in New York Magazine. When abusers don’t just make art, but decide what art is, the calculation becomes trickier. It’s not Woody Allen’s movies that are tainted; it’s the entire movie endeavor. And as literary gatekeepers hit the ground, they spread a similar stain.

You can’t point to a work of genius by Stein and debate over whether it can still be appreciated. He wasn’t a maker, but a tastemaker — part of a network of white, male, and yes, sometimes abusive literary tastemakers who have long defined what it takes for writing to be successful, what it means for writing to be “good.” Witness, if you have the stomach for it, this nauseating-in-retrospect New York Times profile of Stein from when he took over the magazine. Stein offers to “pimp” Zadie Smith, and declares himself “kissed out” after a party, but the article also muses on his literary connections — all men — and his responsibility to the ideals of literary quality. “[The Paris Review] will stand or fall on the quality of its literariness,” says one of Stein’s colleagues in the article’s closing quote. “It has to provide beautiful, witty, rarefied fun of a distinct kind. … Lorin needs to make The Paris Review matter to people for whom literature matters.” It’s Leon Wieseltier.

This closed-system idea of literary value, defined and defended by the kind of men who have always taken their power for granted and used it for gain, reverberates well beyond any single piece, or even any single publication. Nor will it be solved simply by removing the gatekeepers from their positions of influence. The Paris Review did once have a woman editor, Brigid Hughes, though she was ousted in favor of the more famous and flashy Philip Gourevitch in 2005. (And subsequently erased from the publication’s history; I wouldn’t have known about her without a tweet thread from A.N. Devers.) In a Times profile of Hughes, written when she took over the magazine in 2004, she insisted over and over that her only goal was “to publish good writing, whatever form that takes.” When the reporter asked if she would try to shift the publication’s notoriously skewed gender balance, she demurred that “I’m not going to consciously insist on half men and half women,” although she allowed that she has “different tastes” than founder George Plimpton. It matters to have a person with different “tastes” — or rather, with different life experience, prone to noticing and appreciating different things — at the helm. But when “taste” and “good writing” are defined in large part by that network of powerful literary men, the ones clapping each other on the back about making literature matter and then being exposed as abusers one by one, it may not matter enough.

If your idea of value springs from an ethical void, it’s time to transplant it onto stronger soil.

Once you realize how much the structures of literary power are bound up with the concept of literary quality, it becomes clear — if it wasn’t already — that our entire concept of “quality” is suspect. The Paris Review publishes twice as many men as women; are men twice as good? The New York Times described Stein as “regarded by many as a champion of new talent, including some women writers,” but that “some” is poison. One can’t really make the case that Stein was a champion of women writers generally; under his auspices, The Paris Review went from one-third women writers to… one-third women writers. So who broke through to be part of the illustrious third? This is not to say that the writers who did make their way into The Paris Review’s pages aren’t worthy, but we should illuminate the hand that picked them, and the other work it cast aside. In short, if you weren’t already paying attention to the ways that whiteness and maleness determine what we value in art, you should be now.

There is such a thing as “good writing”; it’s not a purely vacuous phrase. (Most of the work in The Paris Review is, in fact, good writing, in various ways!) But any first-year writing workshop would push you to unpack the word “good.” Do you mean rhetorically effective writing? Emotionally effective? Simple and clear writing? Evocative writing full of detail? Too often, what we actually mean by “good writing” is “writing that has been ratified by the literary establishment.” But the literary establishment, we are coming to find, is bad. (Morally.) If your idea of value springs from an ethical void, it’s time to transplant it onto stronger soil.

We can ask ourselves now, again, whether we can separate the art from the artist, and ask ourselves again when the next allegations come to light. But perhaps it’s more important to ask whether we can separate art from the people who decide what art is — and, crucially, what we’ve been missing that they wouldn’t let us see.

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