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Can Great Art Be Separated From Their Problematic Artist?

Updated: May 1, 2021

Jessica L. and Mariam H.

When we consume and enjoy our favourite music, media, and books does that mean we are complicit or even condoning the unsavoury actions of the artist?

How much does context matter? If the artist is no longer able to profit economically, does it matter if we continue to consume their art? Whether or not we continue to stream ‘Thriller’ during the entire Halloween season, and regardless of any profit his estate makes, Micheal Jackson will still be dead. But how much is the cultural legacy and impact of an artist worth?And what happens when we have to reconcile our idols with the horrors of their actions? Xxtenations had a huge significance for so many that listened to his music. His songs were raw with a vulnerability and fragility uncommon in the hip hop genre, covering themes such as depression, loneliness, and loss. Yet, while his music actively challenged the constraints of toxic masculinity, his real life actions seemed to be moulded entirely from a hyper-violent strain of it.

We are in a brave new world. More than at any point in art history, the everyday person has the power to assign value. The institutions that once upheld the authority of the critic are something that we scoff at now. What defines value, directs attention, rouses praise or sows scorn is no longer decided by an unknown pretentious elite. I mean look at Rotten Tomatoes, do we even care what the critic score is if the audience score is ‘certified fresh’? We have become the critics, the audience, the consumer and the fan all at once. What this all means is that there is greater moral obligation in deciding that those we venerate and value are ‘worthy’ of it. The simplistic manifestation of this dilemma is ‘cancel culture’. The alternative stance is to create distinction between the Artist and their Art. But do either of these really fit? And does it provide enough nuance to understand the complexities and contradictions?

“Death of the Author”: Art belongs to everyone

Media and art criticism is largely influenced by Roland Barthes infamous theory called “death of the author”. Barthes suggests that the Artist's intentions behind the work does not matter as much as the audiences own interaction and interpretation of the work itself. Meaning, value and understanding is derived from the individual more so than the author/artists’ rendering them obsolete.

In an age where perceived authenticity is a key selling point, “death of the author” as criticism seems to be dying in relevance. It is most often used to divest audiences of the responsibility to challenge the artist and their intentions. It provides an easy freedom to enjoy the art, and engage with it in an emotionally safe and pleasurable manner. It allows us to dismiss the unsavoury parts of the artist and comfortably consume their work in a manner that is formative to our being.

The theory does not recognise the symbiosis between the artist and their art. It is becoming harder to truly separate the art from the artist for the sake of the individual. Especially when the art is constructed to be inseparable from the artist to begin with. Take Taylor Swift for example, her music is near autobiographical and intertwined with her artistic persona. Swift's album ‘1989’, was heavily coded with references to her public life, and the audience’s understanding of the work was guided almost entirely by the artist.

Another notable example is the Harry Potter universe and its creator J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter is among the modern works of art that have shaped culture and our collective consciousness. The work has been a safe haven for many. Its’ themes of belonging, personal identity and friendship spoke to millions worldwide. The emergence of the internet allowed fandoms to flourish, and fans worldwide used Rowling’s work as a means to connect with each other and create a global community. Rowling herself was lauded and placed on a pedestal, increasingly becoming a moral authority. This image began to fracture as Rowling became more and more vocal about her views. Most recently, Rowling decided to drop her unsolicited transphobic views.

So while for so many of us Harry Potter is a formative aspect of our lives, it is becoming difficult to separate Rowling from her creation. We cannot immerse ourselves and enjoy the Harry Potter universe in the way that we previously had. The question that haunts us is, if engagement with the Harry Potter universe equates with validation of Rowling’s unsavoury, hurtful statements and sentiments. For those like us, not part of the communities she hurt, does our silence mean they were not worthy of our outrage, active protest or solidarity? What would active protest even look like? How would we ‘cancel’ Rowling and Harry Potter?

How would we go about simply erasing such a monolith from the cultural narrative?

Can we really use art to decide who is good and bad?

Art is a strange lens to view morality, as it is in a constant state of flux. We constantly see artists that we put on such a high pedestal be knocked down to ruins in an instant. The call-outs and cancelling of the artist’s actions, is used as a measuring stick for our own collective and individual morality. What we have developed is a tool to measure our moral compass. More than anything we need to draw lines in the sand, react accordingly, appropriately and ‘woke-ly’ in response to the art we consume.

Time and time again we have seen bad people produce good art, from authors such as Hemingway, to directors such as Woody Allen, designers like Coco Chanel. Beautiful, insightful, moving work can come from horrible people. Celebrated work can come at the expense of so much tragedy, oppression and the direct result of exploitation. To say that we do not justify the value of art without those parameters is untrue. Does it seem good for visual artist Damien Hirst to slice a cow in half and put it’s carcass in formaldehyde for the sake of art (YES this is true, google it) or is it justifiable to watch another movie produced by Harvey Weinstein’s company (the devil works hard but damn Miramax in the 1990-2000s worked harder).

There is a strange comfort in relying on Cancel Culture rhetoric to inform us when a “problematic” artist should be condemned. Socially we become aware of who NOT to engage with, making it easier for us to know who we should not give our attention, time and money to. Problematic and Unproblematic appear as solid and trustworthy roadmaps to navigate the media yet it is not without its limitations. The art and the artist do not always fit easily into those binaries. The moral high ground when it comes to art seems to be a mountainous terrain with endless peaks and ditches before us. As much as we want it to be easy to navigate, a black and white map is not the best measure to decide whether the greyness of art can be truly good or bad. Overtime looking for absolute morality in art erodes you, leaving you more confused as to where you stand in all this greyness. What becomes more apparent is that art is a display of power. It’s a clear indication of what we think matters in this world, of the people that we choose to venerate and the idols that we aspire to become.

So, Can Great Art be Separated From its Problematic Artist?

The greater question is, why do we need it to be separated?

We demand clear cut positions and boundaries, yet no aspect of human existence is truly clear cut. The cultural legacy that is imprinted into our society is the assumption that good art is synonymously created by good people. Upon reflection it feels as though by giving Artists our time and energy, we want them to be deserving of it. We so often place our Artists on a pedestal, we expect them to be better, to do better, to be infallible. As though being an Artist means they are something greater, but the truth is neither genius, inspiration or talent is synonymous with innate morality.

The value of discomfort and confliction cannot be disregarded. As a cultural artefact, the primary function of art is not simply to entertain. Art is an exploration of the human conditions, it is a means to wallow in the discomfort and develop nuance. In Aristotle’s earliest surviving work The Poetics, he stipulates the true purpose of Greek Tragedy, as means of catharsis for the audience. Though Aristotle was specifically discussing dramatic theatre, the concept can be applied to Art generally. Art can allow us to grapple with the nuances and darkness of the human condition in a controlled environment. In being challenged and discomfited we facilitate a deeper understanding of ourselves. The ethical dilemma of how to manage a ‘problematic artist’ can shape and develop our boundaries.

So learn to sit and stew in your discomfort. That conflicted feelings that comes from engaging in the morally grey of art is an opportunity to reflect. The truth is 9 ½ times out of 10 you will not get the satisfying answer that will comfortably return you to black and white binaries. Instead it will help you understand the darker and more questionable parts of your being.

In summary:

  1. Separating the Art from the Artist is HAAAAAAARD

  2. Just because you make great Art doesn’t mean you are a good person

  3. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable every once in awhile

  4. We are all confused, but we try.


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