When scandal hits should we re-evaluate our opinion of the artist’s work?

9 mins read
Caravaggio (the Italian painter) has become famous to history for being a bit of a thug. He killed someone sometime around 1590 (the greatest of his crimes, but by no means his only one). A decade later he was decorating the Contarelli Chapel. Today, a few centuries later, if you take the study of art seriously, you’re going to study Caravaggio. As art historian, André Berne-Joffroy, once wrote: “what begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”

You’d have to wonder what would have happened in 2021, had Caravaggio done what he did now. Would he have been celebrated for his art, when his personal life would have been so reprehensible to us? Indeed, if he was working just 100 years ago, rather than 500, where time has dulled people’s concerns over the individual’s moral actions, would it have been acceptable to admire his art at all? For example, I know from personal experience that you’re barely able to appreciate a Stanley Kubrick film anymore. He might have been the greatest filmmaker of all time (no, not “might”, he is), but certain vocal sections of the community discovered that he was also problematic, and so now we’re meant to ignore Kubrick’s stuff and stick to nice, safe content that completely wholesome film directors have made. Stuff like them Marvel films. Marvel is quick to drop any director that becomes even remotely controversial.

I write all of this because the games industry has been going through a round of moral controversy. Again. It seems to happen every few months. The big one this time around was the shocking, horrific revelations of what has been going on behind Blizzard’s closed doors (and the subsequent response from management, which has been American Big Corporate to the offensive extreme). But then, this morning, one of the darlings of progressive indie game development, Fullbright, was discovered to be a toxic workplace of its own. It was the responses to that one that inspired this little thought bubble from me.

“Fullbright should be boycotted”, one Twitter user wrote. Another asks “So can we finally bump down it’s rating on Steam off of Overwhelmingly Positive?” Over with Activision Blizzard, World of Warcraft players – many of who had made this game a major part of their lives, if not their exclusive hobby – are furiously deleting their accounts in protest.

So, let’s talk about this, because it’s both sensitive and important, and in the era of social media, it would be naive to assume that there won’t be many more grievances aired in the years ahead against many individuals and companies; does art become invalid when the artist behind it falls from grace? It’s a nuanced discussion, and I don’t have any definitive answers here, but the nuances need to be laid out, because sometimes this discussion does tip over to judging people who admire art from bad people, and that I would caution against.

First of all, though, it has to be said up-front that it’s a perfectly reasonable response to refuse to experience a work of art that has come from someone that you find repellent. Of course it is. It needs to be said because it can draw eye-rolls if you state that that’s why you’ve avoided a game, but the reality here is art has a commercial quality. It’s sold on open markets and the people that make the games (typically) want to make a profit and livelihood out of their work. You are actively supporting that goal by buying something that they’ve created, and it makes total sense that you’d not want to do that if there is something about the artist you find unacceptable.

However, things become a little more complex if you consider art independently of its commercial context. I’ll give you an example of just how complex this can be. Let’s take Roman Polanski, since most of us know that absolutely, objectively, irredeemably horrific thing that he did. But let’s say you weren’t originally aware of Polanski’s history, and simply admired his films, and with the likes of The Pianist, Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, he has created more than a few masterpieces. Should you be expected to stop admiring those films after finding out about what Polanski did? What about the films that Polanski made before he did what he did? At the point that he produced films like Knife on the Water and Cul-de-Sac he was just a non-criminal auteur, and nothing about what is in these films changed after Polanski became reprehensible. So, to bring this example back to games, does Gone Home really become a lesser work now that we know that the director is a micro-managing arsehole?

And regardless of your own answers to the above, there remains the question of whether other people should have to defend themselves for admiring these works. Going forwards, are people who want to discuss Gone Home going to have to go through a laundry list of disclaimers regarding their position on the creator before they can start talking about the artwork? Will people assume that admiring the creativity of the artist means supporting everything else about them? Look at how quickly people became uncomfortable with Kevin Spacey’s performances. They didn’t change in light of the revelations that we all found out about him. The performances had already been committed to film. And yet, when I recently said that I thought that L.A Confidential was a perfectly cast and performed film, I found myself immediately wanting to walk that back, as I realised that since Spacey was in that film, people might draw conclusions about my opinions on the man, and I didn’t want people to extrapolate that I must therefore support Spacey himself (for the record: I absolutely do not).

Ultimately I do, personally, believe that the quality of an artwork is distinct to the quality of the people that made it. I also believe that an auteur’s genius is distinct to their morals, and it’s not immoral for an audience to appreciate that genius, unless the thing that made the artist horrible is specifically reflected in the work. I do not believe that the discussion of Gone Home going forward should shift to a debate around the director, just as I believe that we can appreciate the influence and importance of Caravaggio’s art without having to deal with him being a murderer… other than those occasions where his capacity for violence is reflected in his art itself.

Again, though, I totally understand and appreciate anyone who refuses to spend money on this art. If you’re not able to stomach playing Gone Home again, or if you’re one of the few who haven’t played it yet, and might have been otherwise interested, but can’t buy it because of this, then I think that’s a totally rational and justifiable response. After all, there are very few other tools else that we, as an audience, have to make it clear to these businesses and the art community that this stuff isn’t on.

Matt S. is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of DDNet. He's been writing about games for over 20 years, including a book, but is perhaps best-known for being the high priest of the Church of Hatsune Miku.

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