Can you separate the art from the artist?
Ari Denning | Wednesday, October 11, 2023
“Can you separate the art from the artist?” is a question that has cropped up again and again in recent years as more celebrities are exposed as problematic or criminal. It’s especially prevalent in the most popular artists of the day — Kanye West has made antisemitic comments, Chris Brown publicly beat Rihanna back in 2009, Morgan Wallen was recorded yelling the N-word. All of these artists have huge platforms and are creating chart-topping music. Even huge music legends of the past such as Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley are still held up as defining artists of their respective music genres. How do you determine what is morally OK to listen to, and are you supporting them if you love their art?
This is a very nuanced topic. There is no definitive correct or incorrect way to interpret this question. It all comes down to one’s own interpretation of what their standards are for what they deem as acceptable to listen to or support. Everyone has their own personal stance on this subject, and the one I present is still something I question and am challenged by.
Some people will say art is a completely separate entity from who creates it. It stands on its own and has its own intrinsic meaning which is not impacted by an artist’s actions. Others will say there can be no separation between that art and the artist; art fundamentally has to be a reflection of the artist’s beliefs and ideas.
Still others say that it depends on certain factors, such as the severity of the actor’s actions, your own enjoyment of their work and the connection between the artist’s beliefs and their work. For example, when it comes to someone like actor Woody Allen, I’ve made the decision to not consume his movies. His actions have directly tainted how I view any of his work. The same goes for West and Brown.
Other issues give me pause. Online cancel culture has certainly become quite intense and fickle about judging and proclaiming people irredeemable, but the public also has such a hypocritically short memory concerning particular artists whose music they just don’t feel like giving up.
The biggest conflict I personally feel concerns a lot of classic rock stars — John Lennon, Axl Rose and David Bowie among others — who have been accused of a variety of issues from problematic statements to assault allegations. I grew up listening to these artists in the car with my dad, and they have shaped my musical tastes. I have an incredible amount of nostalgia attached to their work. I won’t lie and say I’m not guilty of listening to some of their music — I love their work even if I don’t love them as people. It’s also still true that my knowledge of their actions has irrevocably hurt how I view their work and my enjoyment of it.
There are more facets at play, such as how much their work is espousing their beliefs and the degree to which you support an artist. I find it easier to separate art from artist when their work is about a topic separate from their personal shortcomings. It’s relatively impossible for me to separate the two when their work promotes a similar toxic ideology they hold or when they seem hypocritical.
It becomes even more complicated when the artist is still alive and performing. Your support, financial or otherwise, can end up strengthening their platform and allow their views to reach a wider audience. When it is an artist of the past that has since died, it may be easier to consume their work because your appreciation can’t exactly benefit them now.
This is just a snapshot of all the sides to this issue and the questions I ask myself. The ones you ask yourself may be different. As a consumer of many kinds of media, I try to be mindful of where I’m spending my money and who I’m glorifying. I find importance in consuming content created by people whose values I respect. But ultimately, art and how you think about it is subjective.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.