Separating the art from the artist: Is it possible?



How often have you been in the situation where you've found an artist - whether it be a musician, a filmmaker, an actor/actress, etc. - whose art you love, only to find out that they have a controversial and problematic history? If you’ve been in this predicament before, you’ve probably had to face the dilemma of whether or not you should continue to listen to their music or watch their movies or buy their products despite how much you love them.


In recent times, we have seen popular artists of pop culture build their fanbases and grow in popularity only to be exposed for their horrible actions from the past and their controversial ethics and morals: Chris Brown was exposed for domestic abuse, Michael Jackson for pedophilia, R. Kelly for having sexual relations with minors, Harvey Weinstein for sexual exploitation… and so many more. These events have led fans to stop supporting their art because of their actions, but other fans have not been deterred from their support for their creations at all. This all stems from the argument of whether or not it is possible to separate the art from the artist, which is a controversial question that people have struggled to find a direct answer to for a long time.


People who believe that it is possible to separate the art from the artist justify their views on the fact that art is not always a reflection of the artists themselves, and that it is free to be interpreted in other ways. People who believe that it isn’t possible to separate the two argue the opposite: that the art is influenced by the artists’ own experiences and views on the world. Additionally, consuming the artists' art means that you are giving them your support and allowing them to profit off of it as well. This question has polarized art-lovers in a variety of ways in how they view the treatment of controversial artists in today’s society.


The point of this article isn’t to provide you with a straight answer to this controversial question, but rather to provide insight from both sides of the argument to help you form an opinion of your own.


In order to get some fresh insight on the question, I interviewed a relatively popular Instagram user who goes by the handle @playboisucc. On his page, he posts his own opinions on today’s music and artists in the form of memes, polls and reviews. The page has gathered over 25 thousand followers, so I spoke to him about his views on the question.


“Many people argue that art and the artists that make it can be completely separated," Playboisucc said. "I disagree, as all art is impacted by the experiences and viewpoints of the person who made it. Art is often a way for people to express their feelings and views, so ignoring an artist’s controversial actions feeds into their views and sometimes their actions.”


The justification for believing that it is impossible to separate art from its creator is that the artist - in almost every situation in which their art is being consumed - is going to profit off of the use of their product(s). Take Chris Brown as an example. Brown has faced a large amount of backlash and criticism from the public because of his history of domestic abuse. Because of this, a lot of consumers have stopped listening to his music because they do not want him to make a profit off of their support. This form of “punishment” is known as boycotting, but in recent times, the term “cancelled” has been used to refer to artists like Brown who have done controversial things, causing people to withdraw their support from them.


“In my opinion, this is often an appropriate response,” Playboisucc said. “Art - music especially - is a huge financial market. Any artist who has questionable morals will still benefit from the sale of their art. When one listens to music from them, they are directly giving them their streams and money.”


The argument against canceling controversial artists is that by doing so, there is no room given to the artists to grow from their mistakes. There are people who believe that, instead of canceling an artist, it is important to make sure they are aware that their actions were wrong and hurtful, and that it is their responsibility to educate themselves on their wrongdoings to prevent them from making the same mistakes in the future. There is the idea that these artists are redeemable, and that we must allow them to make up for their mistakes.


In terms of whether or not problematic artists are redeemable, Playboisucc said that the answer is complex.


“Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s really a concrete answer to this question," he said. "Every situation is different, and it depends on what the artist did/how they apologize. For me, there are some actions that are unforgivable such as abuse, racism and homophobia.”


But what if art isn’t a representation of the artist’s views and moral values? What about in cases where the controversial artist in question is dead, such as the case of Michael Jackson? An article written by Janna Thompson for The Conversation tackles this perspective on the argument.


“If it is wrong to censure art or refuse to display it because of its content, how can it be right to shun it because of the behaviour of the artist? What’s the difference?” Thompson said.


Thompson also argues that it is not reasonable to assume that all art is reflective of the artist’s own views and brings the case of Woody Allen to support her point.


“Artists themselves warn against taking their works as a reflection of who they are," she said. "When asked whether his films helped him work through his life dilemmas, Woody Allen denied any relation between his life and his works. ‘Movies are fiction. The plots of my movies don’t have any relationship to my life.’ If works of art belong to a realm separated off from the life of the artist they can’t be polluted by the bad things artists do.”


The public may never see eye-to-eye in how we choose to answer this question, but I hope I have done a good job in providing arguments from either side of the controversy. Ultimately, it is up to the consumers to decide how they choose to carry on with their support for a particular artist upon learning about their controversial actions and whether or not they will choose to separate their products from their character.