Should we separate the art from the artist? A commentary on the Armie Hammer allegations

Design by Ada Baser

By Barbara Kuza-Tarkowska.

The New Year began with what is arguably one of the most disturbing celebrity scandals in a long time. Armie Hammer — you may know him as the actor from the hit movie “Call Me By Your Name” or “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” — was accused of cannibalism and sexual violence. Screenshots of his Direct Messages (DMs) were posted by an anonymous Instagram account, @houseofeffie. The screenshots show what appears to be Hammer confessing to fantasies of cannibalism and rape. “I want to see your brain, your blood, your organs, every part of you,” and, “I am 100% a cannibal,” are just the tip of the iceberg of some incredibly unsettling messages. According to @houseofeffie, the messages were sent nonconsensually. While these DMs have not been verified and remain as allegations, several other women came forward to disclose that they have experienced physical and emotional abuse from Hammer. Some include Hammer’s ex-girlfriends, for instance Paige Lorenze, who claimed Hammer engraved the letter “A” on her groin and told her he wanted to remove and eat her rib. 

Viewers and fans might watch Hammer’s work in a very different light from now on. A few might refrain from watching entirely, others might feel uneasy or disgusted as he appears on the silver screen. But regardless of whether these allegations and screenshots are true, should we continue watching Hammer’s movies? Can we separate the character he is portraying from the actor himself? These questions do not apply solely to the case of Armie Hammer. History has tested us with artists with questionable morals over and over again, be it Amerighi da Caravaggio, an Italian artist who was also a murderer; William Golding, the author of “Lord of the Flies,” who tried to rape a minor; Le Corbusier who was a fascist, or other more up-to-date examples such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. If the paintings of artists who were murderers and abusers were hidden away in a dusty basement, if the movies of actors and producers who were (or still are) perpetrators of sexual assault were taken down from streaming platforms, and novels of writers who were, to put it simply, terrible people were to be burnt, would there really be many oeuvres left to appreciate? 

The case is more complicated when the artist is alive. We can freely appreciate Caravaggio’s genius detail and mastery of shadow and light in “Judith Beheading Holofernes” since the artist lived and painted on the brink of the XVII century and not in 2021. We are living in a conscious age, one in which allegations of any kind of abuse cannot and must not be swept under the rug. The #MeToo movement itself began with women coming forward and sharing their stories of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault. His conviction of 23 years in prison, sentenced last year, was a light of hope for rape and assault survivors. The fact remains that consuming the art of a living artist with questionable morals provides them with financial support. This holds true no matter how genius they are, even if their book or movie is your favourite. Actors receive so-called residuals for movies that are streamed, and producers are paid for licensing deals. Economic profit is similar for DVDs and copies of novels. 

When finding out about a case of rape, assault, or abuse inflicted by one’s friend onto another, most will want to disassociate with the abuser. It is expected that most people will not want to hear from the abuser or communicate with them in any way. Most probably, people will also boycott their new book or new movie. Staying friends with an abuser undermines the survivor’s trauma and the immense amount of work that the victim had (and may still have) to put in to move on. Most would not purposefully support an abuser financially. So why do we do this in the case of celebrities? Why do we give them the benefit of the doubt? Perhaps the answer is that it does not seem as personal. 

The debate of whether art should be separated from the artist remains unresolved. Some might argue that this decision is purely personal, just like interpretations of paintings or movie scenes. Another question is, how personal is art? How heavily has the artist’s character and background influenced their work? Can the product of their talent be regarded as separate from them? Today’s society leaves every one of us a choice, and we must strive to strike a balance. Taking down the art of all the artists who have ever had questionable morals would be robbing society of cultural capital. But we most certainly cannot look past their actions. If you decide that the art cannot be separated from the artist and choose to boycott them, you are making a morally good decision. However, if you do decide that the art can be separated from the artist, you must be conscious of the atrocities committed and condemn the artist for them. 

Hammer has dropped out of the production of the upcoming movie, “Shotgun Wedding,” in light of the recent accusations. He also gave a statement saying that the allegations are “bullshit claims.” The alleged screenshots of DMs remain on @houseofeffie’s Instagram story highlights and are labeled as sensitive content. It is yet to be seen whether the Armie Hammer scandal will die with the twenty-four hour news cycle or end his career. Notwithstanding, we must be more conscious of artists’ background the next time we decide to admire their art. 

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