Critics Weigh In on Art In #MeToo Era at PEN America’s BKBF Panel
A panel hosted yesterday by PEN America at the Brooklyn Book Festival, called “The Art of the Accused,” saw four critics and curators discuss and debate how the public should deal with the work of creatives throughout history with abusive or contentious personal lives. WNYC art critic Deborah Solomon moderated the panel, which saw New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, writer and producer Tanya Selvaratnam, and New Museum fellow Maggie Mustard each take a somewhat distinct approach to answering what has become one of the most hotly-debated topics in the #MeToo era.
One topic of debate was whether such artists as Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz and other men accused of physical or sexual misconduct, such as television journalist Charlie Rose, should be allowed to repent—Solomon suggested such penances as having Rose write press releases for a rape crisis center pro bono—or if they should, as Mustard argued, be left to languish in obscurity. “Their currency is their audience,” Selvaratnam added, to that point, “and so by giving them a platform, you can continue their impunity. And I think we have to take some collective responsibility for that, and also think about how the victims feel.” (She later said, however, that it is possible to see harassment as artistically fruitful on both sides, and, “like any experience, provides powerful grist for the mill.” She also said, in terms of authors like Díaz, that she would like to see them invited to book festivals should thorough investigations be completed, as she argues was done in Díaz’s case.)
Scott, who pointed out that the conversation is, ultimately, “all about power,” pointed out a trend in which a number of magazines and newspapers of note have given those accused of misconduct a first-person platform to tell their side of the story, but have rarely, if ever, done so for the victims. Mustard noted that this trend—indeed, even the conversation they were having at that moment—is unfortunate in that it “recenters the conversation around these men and not the way women have survived it.”
Despite some disagreements, the panel ultimately settled on pushing for a “restorative, and not punitive,” justice. When the panel was asked in the question-and-answer session, for instance, if authors like Alexie and Díaz should still be invited to festivals or included on syllabi, Mustard, calling the suggestions “two very different forms of platforming,” said that instead of excising important yet volatile artists from her syllabi when she taught, she “reframed” them and their art in the context of their lives and actions. However, she added, in the case of a festival, those authors would be receiving speaking fees—something she finds more complicated.