The Nuances of Separating the Art From the Artist

By Anne Thiselton-Dyer, Arts Editor

// It seems every day that another celebrity turns out to be a horrible person; Johnny Depp, Kevin Spacey, and R. Kelly are just a few of many twenty-first century examples. In the spotlight, where every aspect of a person is subject to scrutiny, privacy is an idea of the past.

We have long accepted the contributions of awful people like these to society despite their actions. The phenomena is generally more common among male celebrities, who have, with a few exceptions, lead successful careers in the face of serious harassment and assault allegations. But recent developments in the media, such as the #METOO movement, have paved the way towards a culture that doesn’t accept artistic merit as an excuse. In light of these developments, a debate surrounding the theory of separating the art from the artist emerges: can we consume good art from terrible people?

Many individuals misunderstand the meaning of this expression and use it to justify their support, since the “traditional” method of separating art from the artist consists of giving a feeble disclaimer before professing love for the art. For example, one could say, ¨I don’t like Johnny Depp as a person, but I’m still going to see his new movie¨, clearing oneself of any moral repercussions.

This approach is rational, but not exactly satisfactory, as it can be misinterpreted by closed minded individuals by validating the artist´s actions outside of the cinema screen. Instead, we must separate the art from the artist by judging his or her actions independently from his or her creative contributions. Talent is not a redeeming quality when it comes to racism, misogyny, and sexual harassment and assault.

Of course, there are rules that can be clearly defined: if the art itself includes content that reflects that part of the artist’s life or encourages hate, violence, or similar ideas, we can generally agree to not let it enter mainstream culture. Regardless, these people and their renowned reputations have a strange kind of draw. Like watching a car crash, unable to look away, people discover the art through knowledge of the artist; the more horrifying, the larger the allure. The paradox is fascinating to watch burn down in flames, gaining popularity with every passing moment. The lines begin to blur, however, when the art itself bears no suggestion of immoral actions.

These artists are not equatable to influential organizations that hold power through political and monetary sway. Instead, their place in the public eye provides them with ample opportunity to shape cultural norms. If someone’s job is rooted in the spotlight, it is their responsibility to use that power (the same one that grants them fame and fortune) to influence the public in a positive manner. Whether we like it or not, what actors and musicians do and say holds sway over public opinion, especially that of young people.

The best course of action is to draw the line between supporting a creation and the person behind it. In short, don´t let your admiration for someone’s work blind you. You aren’t hurting anyone by privately appreciating a piece of art; the danger lies when you publicly promote it. If everyone praises a piece of art made by a questionable person without acknowledging their glaringly obvious offenses socially acceptable, enabling becomes the norm. We must be careful not to let the merits of art and artist bleed together, promoting a long-standing culture that lets sexual harassment and rape accusations slide provided that the accused is “talented enough.”

We can try to keep personal and professional separate, but continuing to support someone whose cruel actions are widely acknowledged spreads the message that his or her action was okay; tolerance of the intolerable becomes the status quo.

So is there a morally correct way to consume art from bad people? While we should never let serious allegations slide, it doesn’t seem quite right to discredit someone who made historical contributions and changes to his or her industry. If an artist’s audience is unable to make the distinction between the individual and their work, as is too often the case, support is all or nothing. Instead of acknowledging that his or her actions were wrong, the fanbase turns what should be a simple distinction into a “did they, didn’t they” debate. When people take criticism of a artist’s actions as a criticism of their personal taste in music or cinema, the dispute can become dangerously oversimplified.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a problematic artist; many talented people just suck! The key is uncoupling talent with immorality. There is no one right way to make this distinction: enjoy that show in private but don’t recommend it to friends, emphasize your love for a particular song and not the musician behind it, consume pre-existing films without going to see that new movie. It’s up to you how to enjoy quality art by problematic people, as long as it’s in a considerate way. Constant political correctness cannot be expected from anyone, but maybe mindfulness surrounding what we choose to publicly support should be.

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