What now?

14 April 2019

Florence Bell reflects on art post #MeToo

I have a personal story to tell, a knotty investment in #MeToo. A friend who I loved a lot was accused of making sexually inappropriate comments to younger women in the industry in which he worked. He doesn’t work anymore, and we aren’t friends anymore. It’s easy to write that in a way which feels surface-level and clear-cut, but, of course, the truth of what happened is messier. It took a year of me being friends with him for the truth to bubble to the surface, and the statement I just made is a wrapped up, easy to swallow pill that disguises another messy year of arguments and indecision.

The prolific post-#MeToo surge of redemption and pointed fingers in the industry hasn’t materialised in the way some of us anticipated. There was more holding up of hands and admitting mistakes than many expected. I can only presume that somewhere, behind the scenes, there were whisperings and arguments and the deletion of some potentially damning email chains.

But one thing that might have been easy to predict was that two kinds of art would emerge in response:

(1) an intersectional feminist multi-modal festival/collage/everything that doesn’t just stand against the art of Bad Men (more on this species later), but seeks to structurally redefine the art itself, a la Dismantle This Room, a Royal Court and Bush co-production, a theatrical escape room that asks its participants to “interrogate the established power structures in theatre”.

(2) a big white art daddy writing a play within those established power structures, a la David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, a ‘black farce’ inspired by Harvey Weinstein. John Malkovich, the starring actor, has promised something “at the crossroads between pain and farce”. Sounds appropriate.

There are, obviously, some things that fall outside these categories (cf. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham: “There are two types of people in this world: those who divide the world into two types, and those who do not”). Robert Icke’s Wild Duck, which analyses the link between Ibsen’s master-story and the dramatist’s unsavoury actions, asked big questions about what we do with The Art of White Dead Men.

There’s been another, under-the-covers, sneaky way artists have been responding to and engaging with the cultural wave of thinking about art post-#MeToo – by telling stories about art and about artists. It’s difficult to negotiate the stories of the Bad Men: how does a writer navigate something that emotionally knotty? I increasingly find myself just as interested in the story of Georgina Chapman as Rose McGowan, in interviews of Soon-Yi Previn as Dylan Farrow.

As a human, how do you navigate a situation like that? The irrevocably messiness of the web of your life being pulled apart. As a culture, we have an obligation to pay attention to the stories of people – like Rose McGowan and Dylan Farrow – who we have long ignored. But the issue is more three-dimensional than that. Rose McGowan has made transphobic comments, there was debate about the implications of an allegation made against Aziz Ansari, and a year and a half on, many men accused in #MeToo haven’t faced any repercussions in the criminal justice system.

The cultural moment created by #MeToo was ephemeral – we still can’t agree on much. As nice as it would be to be able to draw a clear line between the good and the bad, that isn’t always possible. These things always come with a hundred other facts, histories and dramas, to the extent where it becomes increasingly tricky to make a moral judgement on anything. So perhaps we aren’t yet ready for American Crime Story: Harvey Weinstein. In a few years, maybe. But for now, those stories about art, artists and writers are what’s gluing us together. Anthony Neilson’s Tell-Tale Heart, on at the National Theatre over Christmas, spoke to how we talk about artists without touching on the sexual harassment and rape that defined #MeToo. Characters talked about how cool and great artists are, how exciting it must be to be an artist, and even let artists get away with murder. Although not explicitly about Weinstein & co., the analogy is clear. Glorification is a way of blinding ourselves, refusing to see the obvious.

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In Robert Icke’s Wild Duck, one character relentlessly pursues the truth with such blind virtuousness that he causes the death of a child.

In Henrik Ibsen’s Wild Duck, one character relentlessly pursues the truth with such blind virtuousness that he causes the death of a child.

Once digested, Ibsen’s play is perhaps didactic: if knowing the truth is going to cause an irrevocable amount of harm and hurt, perhaps the happy lives on the surface are best left undisturbed. The truth should be left to wallow and die at the bottom of the dark lake with that beautiful, brown-feathered duck.

Of course, in Icke’s production, this message is slippery. It’s drawn from a story written by Ibsen, who, we are told at the outset of the play, had an illegitimate child like the one we see on stage. For him, it would have been far easier if the truth had been left to wallow and die. As Icke’s version reminds us, Ibsen was forced to pay child support until his child was thirteen, then never saw the child or the mother ever again.

Icke’s production argues that there is a grey area. How can we judge these things? One character has to make a decision – tell a father his child is not his and ruin three people’s lives, or allow one person to carry on (happily) living a lie? But the character, Gregory (Gregers in the original, you know – the real one, the true one) who is so obsessed with exposing the truth of this family, no matter the collateral damage it might cause, is also the character who exposes Ibsen’s life-lie. “The Wild Duck is a lie”, he tells us. Truth is a messier, harder kernel than any of us expected. Swallowing it is bitter. In Icke’s version, Gregory can’t handle the pain his truth has inflicted.

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Sometimes I feel like I’d rather watch an analogy for the times we live in, like anything more direct would be a little too blistering. Sometimes I feel like I’d rather push myself to watch the art of a Bad Man just so I can think about it. Thinking about it feels important – for me to do on my own. To take time to think and pause and reflect. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know the answer, but I know that thinking and talking – in a way that is honest, and open to discussion, and kind – is important. For all of us.

Sometimes I feel really angry – angry at the state of affairs. Both sides, if we can call them that, make me angry. Sometimes it is better to sit and think quietly, feel centred, feel secure and happy, rather than take part in big public debates. It is relatively easy, I think, to finger through the silt at the bottom of the lake and find the truth of now. Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Donald Trump. We are aware of the truths of all these men.

The truth of the future is a longer search. Pegged in to all the public debate around #MeToo is a wider cultural concern about art. Who is represented in it, who gets to make it. We don’t know who will be artistic director of the National Theatre in ten years’ time. We can try and influence the future with what we talk about as a culture and as a society, but things are still left up to chance, and circumstance, and the messiness of human lives. If the artistic director of the NT in 2029 is still a white man, I won’t be angry. Increasingly I think the only thing we can really do is make the art. And I don’t want to fetishize that too much, harp on about The Art and The Work, but it’s the only thing we can make and change. And from where I’m standing, the things people have said with their art have stuck in my brain much longer than anything on Twitter.

The work we make has value. The things we say also have value. And different people find value in different things. That’s alright. This feels like a big thing to say, and it shouldn’t, at all: I think the art is more important than things we say or promises we make on Twitter. In fact, the art is of far more value. I don’t want to say that the art is more important than people. But I think the art is how we reconnect, think together, in a way that feels safe. The art that goes into deeper waters about the moment we live in is what’ll help us think – and move forward.