Image provided by Google. Top: Kanye West
What do we do when the art we love was created by people who we do not love at all? With countless examples of artists who have turned out to be extremely unethical, consumers of controversial art are presented with a moral dilemma: should they prioritize their personal connection with the art and continue to enjoy it, or should they realize that it is impossible to disconnect the art from the artist and refuse to?
The answer, of course, is complicated. Art is subjective, and viewers create unique relationships with art that are different from their thoughts on the artist. It would be easy to say that if the art is good, then we should be able to enjoy it no matter what. That is partly because it can be inconvenient to view art with the added lens of the artist’s actions. The novel The Color Purple is taught in countless high schools around the U.S. and covers important themes of race, gender, and power. It is also written by Alice Walker, an American author who has promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. To remove this novel from English classes would not only be difficult, but could also be harmful to students due to the impact of removing a book that uniquely tackles such important issues.
It is most common to see this separation of art and artist when viewers can, to some degree, minimize the controversial actions that an artist has made. Insensitive comments made 10 years ago can be remedied by remorseful, genuine apologies from artists. Billie Eilish’s music is loved by many, but some of her actions towards LGBT+ and AAPI communities have been seen as hurtful and ignorant by some viewers. These viewers, though, recognize that Eilish is only 19 years old and has apologized for her actions. To those who feel that she has been properly held accountable and has shown growth and remorse, her music is art whose enjoyment should not be spoiled by her prior actions.
In addition, you might think that boycotting an artist is unlikely to be effective. Problematic artists oftentimes are extremely rich, and their wealth allows them to ignore criticism or calls for change. After being accused of blatant and repeated transphobia, author J.K. Rowling doubled down on her alleged transphobic beliefs with her new novel, Troubled Blood, which focuses on a cisgender man dressing up to appear as a woman to kill his victims. So is it unethical to read Harry Potter? That depends on the relationship you have with the book series and how you feel supporting Rowling. The series itself is not actually transphobic, and many transgender readers today feel they can enjoy the art without thinking about Rowling. Troubled Blood, however, is a direct continuation of the transphobic beliefs Rowling has espoused. It would not be possible to separate this book from its artist and see the book as unbiased and “unproblematic.” But the specifics of this incident are indicative of how it is difficult to create broad generalizations about artists and their artwork. Whether an artist’s problematic beliefs are reflected in their work matters. We can appreciate the creativity and beauty of the art, but at the same time disagree with the actions of the artist who made it.
As expected though, there are plenty of reasons to disagree with the above analysis and recognize the inherent connections between art and artists. To start with the obvious, our actions are influenced by our beliefs and personalities. This means that racist beliefs, for example, often will influence an artist’s work and be reflected in the art they create. Musical artist R. Kelly repeatedly wrote songs referencing sex, consent, and relational age differences; he was later convicted on counts of sex trafficking and racketeering. When consumers choose to listen to the music of Kelly or other controversial artists, their actions can inadvertently be painful and detrimental to communities that have been harmed. The precedent that these actions set could further strengthen an enabler culture of sexual assault, something that allowed Kelly to get away with a decades-long pattern of abuse in the first place. Popular artists such as Kelly have a platform, and they deserve to be held accountable for using the platform in an unethical manner. Their actions and art reach broad audiences and can have serious effects on how we view important issues such as transphobia or sexual violence. We should not be listening to people who have violated their audience’s trust in them to such an extreme degree.
For each stream of R. Kelly’s songs, Kelly or his related associates will receive a small fraction of a dollar. This simple fact invalidates arguments that art is supposedly a “separate entity,” because by consuming this art you are directly supporting the artist behind it. Additional money in Kelly’s pockets only serves to strengthen an artist who has harmed many. It would give Kelly more money to spend on legal pursuits to get out of jail and show him that his actions do not have consequences. But in cases such as these, just one person choosing to not listen to Kelly’s music would not necessarily do anything. That is why it is important to collectively boycott the work of artists who are terrible people. The campaign to #MuteRKelly, for example, called on corporations, recording studios, and even regular individuals to divest from enjoying Kelly’s art. Magnified, it is vital to recognize that simple consumer choices can have material impacts on artists. With this understanding, separating art from the artist becomes more an optimistic ideal and less something that can actually be done.
There are many layers of detail involved in the debate over separating art from the artist. From the influence actions can have on art to the literal monetary support consumers can give to artists, the many different facets of this argument make it difficult to create broad generalizations that apply to any circumstance. After close consideration in this framework though, it is clear that art can never be a floating entity. It is a product of human labor, and thus it will always be a reflection of the artist – the human – who created it. When we consume or enjoy art, we are doing so in the context of the artist who created it. We can not listen to music without being reminded of the artist who sang those lyrics in the first place, and to separate art from the artist would be to ignore the strongest influence on and source of that art. By realizing the inherent connections between artists and their art, we can not only enjoy the art we are consuming, but create positive and meaningful connections with the artists who create it.