The question of what to do with the work of controversial artists - Alastair Stewart

Last Tuesday evening, my wife and I were sitting watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Actor Johnny Depp pictured during the High Court case in LondonActor Johnny Depp pictured during the High Court case in London
Actor Johnny Depp pictured during the High Court case in London

Inevitably our conversations turned to Johnny Depp in the titular role.

Last year the London libel courts ruled that The Sun was justified in describing Depp as a "wife beater".

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Warner Bros subsequently asked the A-list actor to "resign" from the third Happy Potter spin-off film due out next year.

After pausing the movie and recapping this, we talked about the acting chops of Mads Mikkelsen, who will replace Depp.

And well, - we continued watching. We did not discuss it again. We just played the movie.

This stuck in my mind. Depp's reputation is irreparable, and Hollywood has reputedly boycotted him.

And yet, most of us are disconnected or unwilling to confront this reality regarding famous stars and their famous movies. Depp's work is widely available and does not come with a warning that it contains a performance by a man the High Court accepted was a perpetrator of violence against women.

Perhaps something like "some viewers may find this triggering or upsetting if you have been affected by these issues" would be apt.

If you guffawed, remember that pictures like Gone With The Wind now come with a disclaimer warning it "denies the horrors of slavery".

Many soap operas and dramas include links to support services when dealing with controversial or disturbing topics like sexual assault.

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When do pop culture consumers become responsible for cutting off the work of despicable or convicted artists?

The advisory and the punitive are inherently linked. People should be aware, remember, and make a value and economic judgement. Do you want to line this man's pockets?

Look at the latest reaction on social media to Depp's replacement, and his fans are in revolt. Legions are dedicated to his 'rightful' return to the series, espousing a knee-jerk hatred for Mikkelson and an uncompromising belief that Amber Heard is the devil.

Ethically it seems a remarkably neglected consequence of the #MeToo movement. We seem to search out opportunities to cancel celebrities, writers, comedians and everyone else.

For some reason, we turn a blind eye to their existing work, not just forthcoming projects.

Why is it so hard to boycott entertainment on principle? Awards upon awards seem to serve as kevlar.

There are bizarre grey areas. Is watching a Harvey Weinstein production or a Roman Polanski picture somehow more acceptable because they are not the stars?

It's not a case of removing movies from cinema listings. Decades worth of film catalogues are not just available, they are everywhere. Streaming has made these questions easier to avoid. There's not as much a feeling that you are buying one particular film, and therefore are less accountable for the choice.

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Binge-watching has only compounded the feeling of intimacy between television and real life. Audiences can now spend hours, even days, immersed in a fictional world and refuse to connect the stars to their beloved characters - like some kind of TV Stockholm Syndrome.

Who can watch House of Cards with relish and a guilt-free conscience as Kevin Spacey plots and schemes as Frank Underwood? Regrettably, the behaviour of a single actor has tarnished the likes of American Beauty, Seven and The Negotiator. It is tough to enjoy them the same way.

Music is just as much an omnipresent cultural anchor as film. The likes of Spotify and Apple Music have not removed the catalogues of Gary Glitter and R. Kelly. John Lennon freely admitted he hit women, and Christmas is incomplete without his tracks. Many rock 'n' rolls stars allegedly slept with underage girls.

There is no warning sign affixed to their available collections that these artists are convicted criminals or have freely admitted to abhorrent behaviour.

Unless their music is struck from radio playlists, I can still listen to it anytime I choose from various vendors.

The question of what to do with the work of controversial artists has never been satisfactorily resolved.

It's a challenge matched only by the intense sadness that a body of outstanding work ingrained into pop culture can no longer be enjoyed.

But behind the inconvenience of having to turn off the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, it's impossible to comprehend, save beyond the deepest sympathy, the angst of those who have been hurt, harassed and assaulted.

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The feeling should sting. There is a bitter taste in the knowledge that a powerful, privileged celebrity status was protected and reinforced with ticket sales and box sets.

Will Wheaton (Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation) responded to a question on just this topic. Wheaton believes that the total production must be taken as a whole, despite the disgrace of central stars, and can therefore be enjoyed just as much.

But something is eschewed when there are no repeats of Jimmy Saville's Top of the Pops on BBC or any of his other programmes. The production staff have been tarnished with the same brush.

The ugly truth is that some crimes are worse than others in public minds.

The only comparable moral context is what to do with medical knowledge gleaned from immoral means.

There are decades-old debates over the ethical implications of using Nazi medical research to save lives. You cannot uninvent or forget something.

Operation Paperclip was the secret United States intelligence program to bring more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians to the US. Many were former Nazis, and the likes of Wernher von Braun helped put a man on the moon.

When it seems everyone is being cancelled or boycotted, it remains remarkable that we all seem content to turn a blind eye to our celebrity class for the sake of our entertainment.

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but it seems an appropriate and necessary discussion among the clamouring din to cancel one another out.



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