Separating “art from artist” would be a noble sentiment, if we regularly applied it to anyone other than white men. But we do not. Setting aside for a moment the different ways we assess women, this same pattern of forgiveness and selective blindness is suspiciously absent when it comes to black male artists: When director Nate Parker’s history of sexual assault was revealed earlier this year, his much-anticipated Birth of a Nation flopped, and Parker himself went from a golden boy to an outcast pretty much overnight. Similarly, Mel Gibson was able to laugh comfortably at those O.J. jokes because O.J. Simpson is still in jail and in disgrace, excluded forever from the fame he and Gibson once shared.
The standard objection to excluding men like Affleck, Polanski, or Gibson from the entertainment industry is that it’s “philistine”; excluding any great artist means we get less art, and anyway, penalties should be dealt out by courts, not bosses. Yet as Affleck becomes more successful, he becomes more of a financial asset to the people he works with—meaning they’re more inclined to protect him, and less inclined to give his accusers a fair hearing, because dealing justly with the accusations will endanger the bottom line. If the allegations are true, more and more women will be forced to work with Affleck despite the danger he poses to their physical safety and mental health, even as it becomes more and more risky to report any harassment. In the end, many of those women will do what White and Gorka did—they’ll quit, either the project or the filmmaking industry itself. Keeping great male “artists” around while they endanger their female coworkers isn’t only unjust, it actively lowers the numbers of great female artists by creating a workplace in which women are primarily valued for their ability to accommodate and ingratiate themselves to sexist men, and not for their actual talents.
The problem with Affleck or Gibson or Polanski or Allen winning awards isn’t just that it’s unfair. It’s that someone else could be getting them. Someone else could be standing on that stage—maybe even holding that Best Director trophy, which, to date, only one woman has ever done. By endlessly forgiving and validating abusive men, we tell women that the abuse they suffer is less important than some white guy’s right to get his point of view across. We lose those women’s stories, and their art, because we’ve told them they don’t count.