There’s a difference between having an aesthetic appreciation for art in a museum created for someone who is long dead and actively enjoying songs and other content created by people who are still alive to profit despite their toxic, abusive behavior.
Even though it became particularly relevant with the emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2017, the discussion of separating creators from their creations in order to look at bodies of work through an unbiased lens arose decades earlier. In the 1920s and ’30s, a style of analysis known as the New Criticism was formed by academic critics who opted to judge literature solely on the substance its pages held. This was mostly used to disconnect work from the influential context of outside sources, including the identity of the author.
Today, separating the art from the artist is a moral dilemma that many struggle with. In light of comedians, actors, directors and singers being accused of (and oftentimes admitting to) sexual assault and bigotry, audiences are torn between enjoying pieces they love, and boycotting artists whose actions and sentiments they don’t align with.
Social media users often attempt to decide for the general public that it is time to stop supporting people who have been “problematic,” by employing something commonly called “cancel culture.” The idea is that a fanbase will collectively agree to “cancel” a celebrity on account of something they have said or done. Then, everyone will stop giving the “canceled” artist monetary support or attention, which would essentially end their career.
The trouble with this is that not everyone who is canceled deserves to be written off. People make mistakes, and being socially shunned the second they do something wrong doesn’t allow individuals any room to educate themselves or reform their ways. (Note: mistakes, in this instance, mean something along the lines of a few insensitive comments or deeds, not patterns of active racism, sexism, homophobia or harassment.)
Plus, swearing off artists on media platforms is something that rarely has a lasting impact, or reaches more than a couple thousand Twitter accounts. Cancel culture isn’t a strong enough force to combat the rapists, abusers and bigots that are allowed to be a menace to society because people still appreciate their art.
While there aren’t any simple guidelines to decide whether or not it’s ethical to separate the art from the artist, there are questions that can be asked to help gain some perspective. Which will make it easier to make independent, informed decisions.
1. Is the artist still alive?
If the answer is no, especially if the artist has been dead for quite some time, then generally enjoying the quality of their art is fairly inconsequential. Purchasing CDs, movies or poster prints in recognition of various art forms doesn’t mean you are condoning what the involved artists did, and it won’t change anything.
However, there is something to be said about protesting the gatekeeping of art, which showcases artists like Picasso and Caravaggio in art museums while pushing women and people of color to the fringes of the art world.
If the answer is yes, see the following questions.
2. Is the artist directly profiting off of my enjoyment of his/her work?
This is a big one. In buying things like merchandise, concert tickets, iTunes albums, Amazon movie rentals or even streaming songs on Spotify, it is virtually impossible to cherish an artist’s products without them benefitting from your admiration in some way. If you can’t bring yourself to part from the creator’s work, try and avoid consuming their content in a way that fills their wallet or fuels their fanbase.
3. Has the artist received the proper penalty for their actions or expressed remorse for their words?
If they have, it doesn’t mean they’re in the clear – but it would at least suggest that the artist is paying the price for what they’ve done to some degree. On the other hand, comedians Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart, who don’t seem to acknowledge what they’ve done was wrong, aren’t setting themselves on a path to be better and shouldn’t be supported.
4. Is the artist still engaging in harmful practices?
The only instance in which it’s never okay to separate the art from the artist is when they are still endangering others, and their status is giving them the power to do so with no legal repercussion. R&B singer R. Kelly is the most prominent example of this.
Since the 1990s, R. Kelly has been accused of raping, kidnapping, sexually harassing, filming and abusing underage black girls. To this day he has not been convicted of anything, despite abundant evidence, and an entire documentary full of people speaking out against him. R. Kelly’s own daughter posted an Instagram message condemning his actions.
As long as there are people who refuse to stop listening to R. Kelly’s music and insist on separating his art from his actions, justice won’t come for men who use their agency to exploit young women.
— UltraViolet (@UltraViolet) January 16, 2019
5. Are there other people who were involved in making the work?
The moral predicament grows more complex when considering projects that are larger than a single problematic artist. For instance, actors like Johnny Depp and James Franco who have been accused of assault may be the visible faces of movies, but there are hundreds of talented artists offscreen as well. Directors, cinematographers and crew members all put time into producing quality films as well, and they shouldn’t have to suffer for the star’s wrongdoings.
6. Do I make sure not to delude myself or mislead others with fabrications about the character of the artist?
The most important thing is reconciling an artist’s legacy with reality. Many people find it hard to accept that their heroes are not who they thought they were, and understandably so. Yet it’s crucial that they find the mental fortitude to accept the truth and move on.
It was a rough transition for the public when comedian and actor Bill Cosby, who was affectionately known as “America’s Dad” for years, became an imprisoned rapist overnight. In the end, fans were forced to realize that watching their favorite TV shows and movies wouldn’t be quite the same ever again.
If you’re appreciating the art of an artist, living or dead, be sure that you aren’t unconsciously perpetuating any myths about the context of that art or the person who made it. Be upfront about what the artist did, and realize that not everyone will be okay with the weight the art carries. Respect people’s choice to distance themselves from different works and artists.
Featured Image: celebrityabc on Flickr