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Monday, April 15, 2024

The complex politics of separating art from the artist

Is it possible to be objective about art?


By JOAQUIN WATERS — jwat@ucdavis.edu

The phrase “separating art from the artist” has been thrown around a lot recently. Arguments in favor of the mantra and against it permeate just about every space of cultural discussion. Is it possible to view art with complete objectivity, even if — especially if — the artist in question has said or done hurtful things? It’s a complicated question, one with no easy answer. 

A common response is that it depends on the severity of the artist’s offenses. On some level, I agree; at the very least, I understand the rationale. I doubt that anyone reading this could look at one of Adolf Hitler’s paintings or listen to one of Charles Manson’s songs and feel anything but utter repulsion, no matter the technical quality of the work in question. But then, the paintings of Hitler and the songs of Manson were never terribly popular or influential before their descent into evil. 

It’s easy to separate with these examples because practically nobody living was ever an avid follower of their art. That they once dabbled in creative outlets is nothing more than a hardly relevant footnote in their monstrous lives.

But what of Bill Cosby, the formerly beloved comedian and serial rapist? His 1980s sitcom “The Cosby Show” broke barriers with its positive representation of a middle-class African American family. Undoubtedly, there remain countless people of color in the United States who were positively impacted by the representation “The Cosby Show” provided and perhaps even still have fond memories of it, despite the 60-plus sexual assault allegations leveled against Cosby himself. Is it possible to watch “The Cosby Show” without feeling that same level of repulsion one feels when looking at the art of Hitler or Manson? For many, the answer is yes. They may never be able to see it the exact same way, but they can, more or less, separate the show from the man. 

This gets even trickier when we get into somewhat less extreme cases. What of artists who have revealed themselves to be bigots who, while not violently monstrous, have committed themselves to spreading hateful ideologies? I speak, of course, of modern icons like Kanye West or J.K. Rowling. Their bigotries only came to light well after their art had become beloved among the very communities they would come to harm. 

West’s music spoke deeply to an entire generation of people of color (just a few weeks ago, Donald Glover called him the “GOAT” — the Greatest of All Time) well before he allied himself with neo-Nazis and stated his admiration for Hitler on InfoWars. The “Harry Potterbooks were beloved among queer communities who saw their struggle to fit in reflected in their stories well before the depth of Rowling’s transphobia became clear.

Despite the deserved stigma that the names of West and Rowling now carry, their works are still hugely popular. Evidently, a majority of people have found it difficult — if not impossible — to separate their disdain for these artists as people from the impact their art imparted on them. 

This is not unilaterally the case, of course. Many more former fans have found themselves unable to support or even respect the creations of such problematic people lest they feel complicit in hatred. To me, this response is just as understandable as the inverse. I do not pretend to have an answer to this conundrum. The ability to separate art from the artist varies from person to person. The closest thing I can give to an answer is this: whether or not we can separate an artist from their work, we owe it to ourselves not to ignore either of them.  

H.P. Lovecraft is an oft-cited example among literary nerds like myself. The impact of Lovecraft’s books on the horror genre cannot be overstated. He is so influential that the term “Lovecraftian” has become an adjective describing any work that contains elements of cosmic or existential horror. He was also a virulent racist whose bigotry can be found all over those same works. His is an even tougher case than West or Rowling, because his offenses do not stand in contrast to his art; his racism is partly what enabled him to write so succinctly about the fear of the other. 

However, a great many people have read his works without internalizing that ideology. Some adaptations — like HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” a show that uses Lovecraftian lore to discuss systemic racism in America — even actively refute the ideology of the man while simultaneously standing on the shoulders of his work. To me, this represents a solid compromise to the debate of art versus artist: it is impossible to properly study Lovecraft without engaging with his bigotry, but that does not always necessitate discarding his work. Perhaps, rather than separation, the most appropriate response is synthesis between art and artist.

After all of this analysis, I am only certain about one thing: this issue angers people more than the corruption of the most powerful or famous people. It doesn’t bite as deep when a politician or a wealthy businessman is revealed to be a heinous person. But art strikes deep chords within us. Art can save lives, define lives, shape us into the people we are. Great art can make our souls sing. So, when an artist we love does something utterly in contrast to our values, it cuts deep. It feels like betrayal. And whatever reaction we ultimately have to this betrayal — anger, defensiveness, separation, ignorance — stems from that deep, spiritual sting.

I want you to engage in a thought experiment for a moment. Imagine your all-time favorite artist — someone whose art has had a profoundly positive impact on your life — has been exposed as a deeply vile, morally bankrupt individual. What is your reaction? Never consume their art again? Continue to consume their art while all but ignoring their trespasses? Or something in the middle? 

I’m positive that if you engaged in this thought experiment, you probably felt a swell of anger at the thought that someone you love could do something horrible. Could you really separate? Have you before? Whatever your answer, I do not judge it. But we all should remember that art — even the most powerful art — requires human hands to bring it into existence. And human hands have done terrible things.


Written by: Joaquin Waters — jwat@ucdavis.edu 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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