“Genius man does horrible thing.”
The latest chapter in this centuries-long story came last week, when the New York Times released an investigation on Ryan Adams, the acclaimed singer-songwriter. The piece alleges that Adams exchanged thousands of texts, some explicit, with an underage fan. Other female musicians in his orbit, including his ex-wife, Mandy Moore, allege that he controlled and emotionally abused them.
Adams apologized “to anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally,” while disputing many of the details. Within two days, the release of his forthcoming album was canceled, the FBI was reported to have opened an investigation, and a number of Adams’ high-profile colleagues stood with the women.
It looked something like progress; a well-sourced set of allegations is met with swift financial, legal and social consequence. It also reignited an old question: What of the art?
Was our affection a result of their unparalleled talent or of our repeated exposure, of their limitless opportunities for consideration?
In the Telegraph, music critic Neil McCormick wrote, “Do we really expect our artists to be paragons? Because if we do, we are not just going to be very disappointed, we are going to be stuck with a lot of mediocre art.” (At least one factual error remains uncorrected in the opinion; a not-insignificant piece of McCormick’s argument stems from his assertion that “the New York Times piece doesn’t accuse him of sexual crimes, just general creepiness.”)
The question itself isn’t problematic. In the immediate wake of the allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, many others considered it.
But 14 months have passed since those accusations gave new energy to the #MeToo movement; enough time has elapsed to now answer the questions we then posed. It’s no longer would we miss their art, but do we miss their art? I don’t. Not just on principle; not because I’m willing myself to feel that way. I simply see no great hole in the world where abusive men stood.
I see holes all around them, sure. Ghosts too. People whose stars were dimmed by these men’s abuse.
Genius is subjective and socially contextualized. There are more than 7 billion people on our planet. A choice few get lifted up and anointed with money and access to media. The men who fell had both; men who looked like them have long been the ones standing at the heads of studios, doing the anointing. But did they have genius?
Many of us can think of at least one person who makes us consider the question twice. Mine was Kevin Spacey. I grew up obsessed with “The Usual Suspects”; in 2012, I bought tickets to a three-hour production of “Richard III” simply because he starred in it. Kevin Spacey, I believe, has the capacity for genius. Having had more than a year to consider, and then, frankly, forget, the question, I miss him not at all.
Ryan Adams is a capable musician. His full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s “1989” sucked; the original was brilliant.
Name the rest. Matt Lauer. Bryan Singer. Brett Ratner. Really? I sleep like a baby considering all that lost talent.
Fine. Let’s consider those who have some style. Garrison Keillor. Johnny Depp. Mario Testino. John Lasseter. Woody Allen. Bill Cosby.
But was our affection a result of their unparalleled talent or of our repeated exposure, of their limitless opportunities for consideration? Forty-two years of one radio show. Dozens of films. Hundreds of shoots. A show with his name in it.
There are many other good men who have used their talents to cultivate greater tenderness and to create opportunities for more marginalized creators. I won’t mix their names up in this mess. We can all think of examples.
In the version of the story McCormick tells, when abusive men leave, they leave holes shaped exactly like them and “a lot of mediocre art.” There are no as-yet-uncelebrated talents. There is no genius but abusive genius. Saying the wrong thing or making a single unreciprocated pass is the same as allegedly sexting a high-school student or running someone out of a career.
It’s an ouroborus; the story fits the argument, the argument fits the story. But neither fits the world. The slippery-slope argument treats survivors and those who support them as purely emotional creatures, all slobbering id and pitchfork vengeance. When you hold the argument against humans with these experiences rather than category caricatures, it falls apart.
It also implicitly denies that genius itself could be far more common than we acknowledge, that we need not scrounge for or compromise our values to access it. It denies that among survivors and those who support them there might be genius, not scattered here and there but deep, broad and interesting reserves on offer. It denies that were that genius cultivated — sadder still, had it been — we’d know just what to do with the opportunity. That we would create different art and different environments, no less compelling for being so.
Perhaps the old question — what of the art, which is to say what of their art? — doesn’t fit anymore. Not exactly. But there’s a reason why it’s continually elevated.
New questions might compel us to hold genius with an open palm rather than a clenched fist. That sounds kumbaya; in practice, it asks a great deal. Society would have to reckon with the notion that each person is special, but only just. We are also infinitely, unendingly replaceable. Will we take that reality as a threat or an opportunity? There’s a question.
Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her on Twitter @velvetmelvis.