I believe that art and its creator, the painter, writer, director, what have you, should never be completely separated; it is valuable to examine the background of the artist and how the artist’s experience, or lack thereof, influences the art created. To examine a piece of art without acknowledging the context of its creator is, as my Black Literature teacher stated, just plain lazy. She said this when we were discussing white painter Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till which stirred up heated controversy at the Whitney Biennial. Artists are people who have their own experiences and have everyday impacts to other people in their lives, and I want the people who I support with my time, money, and adoration to be good people who are reflective, smart, and thoughtful with the art they choose to produce.
I, along with hundreds of other devoted fans of queer punk duo PWR BTTM, was shocked to learn about the sexual harassment allegations against Ben Hopkins. After the allegations became public and the three statements were issued by the band, most of their music has been erased from the face of the internet. I check Spotify. Gone. Apple Music. Gone. iTunes. Gone. The “Answer my Text” music video was made private on YouTube. Their CDs for their first album “Ugly Cherries” is on sale for up to 70 dollars on Amazon. Their former label Polyvinyl has dropped them and asked their carriers too, to pull their songs from their sites.
On one hand, I fully understand and support Polyvinyl’s intentions for why they asked for PWR BTTM’s distributors to suspend their partnerships with the band. In a statement, the label explained that “Polyvinyl has purposefully operated on the core principle that everyone deserves to be treated with fairness and respect. There is absolutely no place in the world for hate, violence, abuse, discrimination or predatory behavior of any kind.” In any other situation, I would say the exact same thing: why support someone who is acting violently and is a predator?
However, there are too many people that are held to a pathetically low standard. John Lennon, Casey Affleck, and Donald Trump are three men who have had similar, perhaps worse, allegations towards them made, and one of them is our president. Donald Trump’s recorded comments he made degrading a woman only fueled his support, and although the allegations made against PWR BTTM are saddening and deeply problematic, why erase their existence? Does their queerness play a role in the prodigious backlash they received? They wrote unique songs about body dysphoria and heartbreak that many fans found comfort in. Is this an instance in which we should pardon the art from the artist, even if the art itself is healing enough?
There are similarities in this situation to Nate Parker, the director of the film “Birth of a Nation.” The film was a milestone for black narratives in the mainstream, and additionally powerful because of the statement Parker made by using the same name as the 1915 film which portrayed black men and women with white actors in blackface; the whole film was strung together by displaying only stereotypes. Yet, Parker’s past of being accused of rape haunted him and the legacy of the film, which cost him the great potential his film had.
How we treat artists and their relationship to the art they create is complex, but these instances with PWR BTTM and Nate Parker show that many public figures whom we, the public, hold as exemplary citizens, are held to a standard so low and disgusting. Interestingly, we hold minoritized communities to a standard so much higher compared to the standards we assign to white men. It is integral to critically assess artists and their art, but erasing the memory and the legacy of artists like PWR BTTM and Nate Parker sound eerily like passages from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, where history is rewritten by the simple act of omission. I wish that I could support PWR BTTM’s music and their music only, but that goes against my philosophy. Yes, there are many other artists with unquestionable morality that we can support, but why is it that when it comes to people in minoritized communities that we, as a society, are so quick and eager to dismiss them from the world? As Bell hooks put it eloquently, it is the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that allows for such disparity of treatment.