Recent years has seen many high profile falls from grace. The Me Too movement and other revelations meant that artists across the spectrum were finally beginning to be held accountable for their wrong doings. In the wake of this it’s become common place for their work to be pulled from streaming platforms, or deals and productions cancelled. Notable examples include HBO pulling Louis CK’s content and Amazon refusing to distribute Woody Allen’s latest film. Amazon has also stopped sales of other items; it removed a documentary about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as well as a book written by conservative author Ryan Anderson. In the last week the cessation of publication of Dr Seuss books has fueled speculation that Amazon might stop selling these too.
The list of artists, comedians, writers and actors who have throughout history committed bad and criminal acts is lengthy, from Picasso through to Polanski. But where does this leave their work? Whether you can ever truly separate the art from the artist or from the context it was created in is a pretty fraught question. It seems fairly evident that many people are able to find worth and something to admire in great works created by people who may have done bad things. So the argument goes that we should look at what they create separately from their misdeeds. But can we truly do that? Much of the theory behind separating the art from the artist puts the onus on the viewer or reader; the value of the art is found in our experience, rather than the intentions or mindset of the person who created it. In this context it becomes interesting to consider why it is that we find something to admire in a work created by someone who has done bad things. Why are we able to find humanity in them? Does the fact we can have a social, artistic or human function? If it was a case of whether we chose to watch films or read books this would be a simpler matter. We could discern our own meaning and experience, choosing whether we want to see the work of that person. But there are financial implications. By paying to watch a film or view the work of such an we are giving money and power to them. Which is understandably problematic. But another shift is going on.
The problem now is that the way many of us access culture has become dominated by a few big names. It’s easy to have forgotten a world pre Netflix and other streaming giants. Originally beginning as a DVD delivery service, Netflix took on the home entertainment industry dominated by Blockbuster and other rental services or stores. But over the years it has become a monopoly. Netflix had 203.67 million paid subscribers worldwide as of the end of 2020. It’s estimated that the average person spends two hours a day on Netflix and that in 2020 people may have watched as much as three weeks worth of content. Its decision to start creating original productions or strike deals with huge name directors originally attracted controversy amongst the film world, with the Cannes Film Festival changing competition rules as a reaction to Netflix productions. But in the last couple of years they have also grown to dominate the awards circuit; in 2020 they received 24 Oscar nominations (more than any other media company) and are anticipated to receive many in this year’s forthcoming nominations with 23 titles that are potentially eligible to be nominated. Similarly Amazon Prime has 150 million subscribers. They account for 83% of e-book sales in the USA and over half of sales of new books.
In short then these companies own a huge stake of the business of culture. To be removed from these platforms or stores is very different from an independent book seller or cinema deciding to not show or sell a work that they disagree with or when they disapprove of its creator. It also means that what might have been a personal choice to consume or view culture by someone reprehensible is taken away. We are less able to decide if we can find humanity or something of value in the work of those who have done wrong. What is considered morally acceptable has now become the choice of huge tech companies. They have become a moral censor. So where does this lead? Whilst it’s natural to have misgivings about certain works proliferating or certain artists benefiting financially, giving this much money and moral power to a few corporations also feels problematic. We use big tech platforms so much it sometimes feel as if we have a stake in them, that as customers we’re part of them. But these huge corporations are now not just acquiring our financial choices but also moving to make moral ones for us. There are many reasons to debate revising works or decide whether they are still appropriate. But it feels like the question of what is censored is just as much an issue as who might be ones censoring it.