— Canceling Cancel Culture and Separating Artists from Their Work
Against the backdrop of coronavirus, pride month, and protests across the world, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, posted some controversial tweets over ‘transgender’ and ‘woman’. The argument is currently running its course, with Rowling posting an additional essay explaining and defending her views, but there’s been social media backlash. Daniel Radcliffe, the face of Harry Potter, has written a counteressay addressing her comments and how readers may be affected by them:
To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain [Rowling’s] comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you…If you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. And in my opinion nobody can touch that. It means to you what it means to you and I hope that these comments will not taint that too much.
Similar sentiment could be seen trending in other parts of social media:
There’s also this article that has this line: “If continuing to call myself a ‘Gryffindor’ or referring to Hermione as a personal hero valorizes a transphobic figure, bolsters a hate group, and puts people in danger, do I have a choice but to abandon the story?” Though Rowling’s tweets have no connection to the Harry Potter series, it does have an effect on how Harry Potter is remembered by its fans. Radcliffe wouldn’t have expressed such worry if it didn’t.
The purpose of this piece isn’t to discuss the controversies themselves, but rather how we look at an artist’s art in light of these developments. My question is, can we separate artists from their work? Even if the author is hated, can their work remain loved? I honestly don’t know the answer, but I’ll try to figure it out by looking at controversial artists in time and suggesting a method for dealing with conflicted feelings.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a celebrity get ‘canceled.’ It’s happened many times, more recently with the #MeToo movement, as celebrities become blacklisted and ostracized, first digitally by social media, and then in life by society itself. R Kelly, James Franco, Kevin Spacey are just a few. And as with any artist, we won’t be able to fully understand each of their oeuvres until they’re deceased and we can examine their art from within and outside the time periods in which they worked.
Controversy is determined by time. By our current standards, all of our favorites from the past are ‘problematic’, just as we ourselves will be ‘problematic’ in the future, in ways we cannot know. In the past, J.K. Rowling was a vocal supporter of gay rights, tweeting Dumbledore was gay, prompting outrage from conservatives as she added more background information on a character through the tweet (but not in the books themselves). When she did so, she was lauded by the LGBT community, but now that there’s beef between her and the T, her pedestal is cracked by this amorphous yet powerful wave of collective opinion.
But books and words aren’t the only realm where it happens. Let’s examine some other artistic media.
In film, an example is with the actor, Kevin Spacey. Two Academy Awards, one of which was for Best Actor in American Beauty, an extensive filmography, a household name — yet it all came to an end when sexual harassment allegations surfaced against him in 2017. His scenes in an unreleased movie were reshot with another actor, another film was shelved, and Frank Underwood, the main character he played in House of Cards, was written out of the show’s final season. But the problem is, he’s a good actor. Though he hasn’t worked since the scandal, Spacey leaves behind a body of popular work. He is Keyser Söze (The Usual Suspects); he is John Doe (Se7en); he is Prot (K-Pax). These iconic characters exist within their own respective fictional universes, but they all share his face. Should we not watch these films now because we dislike the actor, who isn’t even being himself on screen?
In music, how about Michael Jackson? The King of Pop always had the shadow of child sexual abuse allegations follow him in life, and ten years after his death, Leaving Neverland (2019) was released, causing some stations to stop playing his music in March, until they started up again in November. Jackson’s popularity, music, and legacy were enough to overcome this controversy. It also helps that he’s dead, so he is unable to defend himself nor cause more harm. Boycotting his music now would only hurt the boycotter.
If we reach further back in time, we can see a similar case with Richard Wagner. An outspoken racist and anti-Semite, he was an idol of Hitler. But he was also a brilliant composer and pushed the bounds of music with his operas. Ride of the Valkyries was his composition. Should we cancel him from history because of how he was used by the Nazi party? It was and still is taboo to play his music in Israel. But then we miss out on a key moment in the development of western music. We lose large women in horned helms heading to Valhalla. We lose a cross-dressing Bugs Bunny. Perhaps my Friend put it best when he said, “Wagner was a vehicle for something greater than himself.”
It is easy to hate. And when we blindly hate, we don’t just hate the person. We hate everything they do, disagree with everything they say, and regard their work as a manifestation of whatever we don’t like about them. Blind hate isn’t nuanced, but singular and absolute. And that is cancel culture. It is a mob mentality that seeks to erase a person because the group disagrees with that person. Whether it’s pretending that Rowling doesn’t exist, seeking to exile her into outer space, or boycotting her work, the group seeks to have its opinions validated. Rowling is still alive, so it makes sense the group doesn’t want to support her in the future financially. But what about an artist’s past? Do we retroactively apply it to the work they’ve done?
That, my dear, is up to you.
If we allow the artist’s personal life and beliefs to interfere with our appreciation of their art, then that is on us, as the viewer, listener, or audience, for giving the artist that power. There is the piece the artist created, envisioned in their mind, informed by their history, beliefs, hopes, and brought to life through their craft. After that point, the art now exists as its own entity, occupying its own space and time. The final part is when we, the audience, experience it and digest it. This experience is completely within our own heads. We decide what we get out of it, and the beauty of art is that that is different for everyone.
Knowing the context of the art is much better than pulling something off a service, like HBO Max just did with Gone with the Wind in the wake of Black Lives Matter. Or burning books that contain content the group disagrees with. Both are acts to restrict availability and accessibility. Yet while too much information may be bad, too little information is worse. It is more productive to understand the context in which the art was created, to understand why it was so popular in the first place. Not only does that give the reader or viewer more information on what the world was like when the art was made, but also may help them comprehend where the artist was coming from.
Canceling someone is no different from blind hate. It calls for the elimination of a living person for one non-negotiable flaw. But perhaps the greatest harm in canceling someone is that it shuts down future growth and change. Just as the group has dismissed the artist, so does the artist dismiss the group in response. These artists are still alive, and they have the potential to change and create more work. If we put in the effort to understand the source of their ‘problematic’ views, we can engage in a dialogue with the artist and see how that affects their art in the future. And if the artist is dead, we have even more power as we can see all that affected them during their lives, leading to a more complete understanding of their life and art.
So now we have to hate Harry Potter. Or do we? I argue we can take back the narrative of art. You can continue liking or disliking Harry Potter as you did before. If the artist is still alive, it is our individual choice to continue to support them financially by purchasing their work. But canceling is the lazy way out, a knee-jerk reaction. It’s easy to jump on a bandwagon, especially when it’s a simple choice between like or dislike, but we ought to slow down and listen first. Art exists by itself, and while knowing the context in which it was made may add or detract from the art, either way it informs the art as a whole.
And with any art, whether the artist is dead or alive, I urge you to create the experience you want from their art. Whether that’s understanding Harry Potter in a vacuum where only the words in the 7 books exist, or in a renewed light as a trans bashing narrative with wands and shapeshifting, I say go for it. Artists are often vehicles for something greater than themselves, and it is up to us to determine how much their personal lives and views interfere or add to their art. The power is ours.
 “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues.” J.K. Rowling, 11 June 2020, www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues/.
 “Daniel Radcliffe Responds to J.K. Rowling’s Tweets on Gender Identity.” The Trevor Project, 8 June 2020, www.thetrevorproject.org/2020/06/08/daniel-radcliffe-responds-to-j-k-rowlings-tweets-on-gender-identity/.
 The Time Has Come To Let Go Of ‘Harry Potter’
 Ramsey, Teresa. “Michael Jackson Songs Back on New Zealand Radio Airwaves.” Stuff, 14 Nov. 2019, www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/tv-radio/117143093/michael-jackson-songs-back-on-new-zealand-radio-airwaves.
 “Anti-Semitism: The Controversy Over Richard Wagner.” Richard Wagner Controversy, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/richard-wagner-controversy.
“Kevin Spacey.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/name/nm0000228/.
Romano, Aja. “Why We Can’t Stop Fighting about Cancel Culture.” Vox, Vox, 30 Dec. 2019, www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate.
Yu, Mallory. “Opinion: Harry Potter’s Magic Fades When His Creator Tweets.” NPR, NPR, 10 June 2020, www.npr.org/2020/06/10/873472683/harry-potters-magic-fades-when-his-creator-tweets.
Coggan, Devan. “J.K. Rowling’s Long History of Discussing — but Not Depicting — Dumbledore’s Sexuality.” EW.com, ew.com/movies/2019/03/19/harry-potter-fantastic-beasts-jk-rowling-dumbledore-sexuality/.
Harris, Mark. “The Absolutist Case for Problematic Pop Culture.” Vulture, Vulture, 10 June 2020, www.vulture.com/article/the-absolutist-case-for-gone-with-the-wind.html.
“ARTS | Barenboim Breaks Wagner Taboo.” BBC News, BBC, 8 July 2001, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/1428634.stm.