Separating the Art from the Artist
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
In our second semester at film school, we learnt what we then thought was an incredibly funny and meaningless statement: “Art is what artists do”. This was given to us as the ultimate definition of art, because no other statement could quite define it. Over the course of researching for this piece, I went back to that definition and tried wrapping my head around what it really signifies. If art is what artists do, then can you really separate the art from the artist? Can art be looked at as an individual entity, instead of something that is associated with the artist? Is ‘art’ all that an artist does? Or only those things that have an aesthetic appeal?
The reason I ask these questions is because as and when I learnt to appreciate art and its creators, I also started building my own opinions over other matters that concern humanity. And it became harder and harder for me to figure out which artist-celebrities deserve my time and attention, and which ones do not. And I wondered if this discretion should be made based singularly on the quality of their work, or also on them as people, their personalities and their moral record. There are several brilliant artists who have dodgy histories. Sometimes, forgivable, sometimes, not so much. There are three major questions I asked myself while trying to dissect the matter:
1. Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?
Short answer: No. But what you can do is forgive them, only on certain conditions.
When an artist of great repute comes out with allegations of any kind, the immediate responses are varied. One set of people are so attached to the art that the celebrity produces, that they find it incredibly difficult to stop consuming it, so their rationalisation is to separate the art from the artist. Another set of people call them out on social media and condemn them entirely. Which one of these options is the right thing to do? Presumably, the latter, but hear me out.
Whether to continue to consume someone’s art depends on one very simple thing – the nature of the crime of which s/he is accused. I firmly believe that there are degrees to crime. In 1994, Norwegian singer-songwriter Varg Vikernes was convicted of murder. In 2001, Winona Ryder was convicted of shoplifting. One is objectively worse than the other. Another thing that I would consider is the artist’s treatment of the allegation. Is s/he coming clean, taking responsibility and apologising? Or is s/he blatantly ignoring the problem and moving on?
The case is entirely different when the allegation is false, or taken out of context. Here's where we as consumers have a role to play. We need to do our research before condemning an artist because of an allegation. For example, one of the first pieces I read on this matter was written by a die-hard Johnny Depp fan who had decided to condemn him because of the allegations of domestic violence. And I made the mistake of doing no further research. It was only later that I learnt that Amber Heard incited the violence, and Depp simply retaliated. So, if tomorrow, someone is accused of something, I would wait. I’d wait for the celebrity to respond and I’d wait for evidence that smashes or supports the accusation.
2. Why shouldn’t I separate the art from the artist?
Last week, I discussed this matter with a bunch of incredibly talented artists, in an attempt to dissect it and arrive at a reasonable conclusion. I think it’s safe to say that the unanimous conclusion that we arrived at was that we shouldn’t separate the art from the artist, for a variety of reasons:
A) Every piece of art is undeniably associated with its creator. You come through in your art. That could be because you use your personal experiences as a motivator, or because you establish a certain style in the way you perform your art. This happens unconsciously, and it’s unavoidable. As artists, we merge our identities with our art. Sometimes, we take it so far that our self-worth starts to depend on the quality of our work. But that’s for another day. When this is the case, it is impossible to separate our art from ourselves. Think about it. If someone were to consume your art without acknowledging you, how would you react? This is essentially what separating the art from the artist would entail.
B) Endorsements lead to financial gain. When you decide to support an artist despite their monstrosities, you are basically funding their criminal intentions. It would be like saying to Harvey Weinstein, “Listen, I know you’re a predator, but here’s some money because I just can’t get enough of your work”. So, if you think there’s no point in condemning an artist because that’s not going to stop them, think again. These people make money because we consume their art. If we stop consuming their art, they make less money. It’s as simple as that.
C) We need to put ourselves in the victim’s shoes. Unfortunately, several of us know what it’s like to be victims of sexual assault. Imagine someone has violated you, but the whole world decides to forgive them and fund them because they’re so good at their work. How would that make you feel? Add to this the fact that most predators use such rationalisations as reasons to commit the crime in the first place, and you’ve got yourself the worst possible thing you could do as a consumer. Predators believe that they cannot be touched. Hence, their predatory behaviour. And your continued support of a predator’s art is a sign that you’re okay with what they’ve done.
3. Why should I separate the art from the artist?
Although I still wouldn’t separate them, here are two perspectives worth considering:
A) You’d miss out.
There are thousands of beautiful artists out there, each with their own share of histories. If you dig deep enough, chances are, there is a horrifying tale behind every artist in existence. If you scrutinize all of them and boycott all of their work, you would simply miss out on some great work. This is especially bad when you think of art as a source of knowledge and personal enhancement. When such is the case, the wise thing to do is plain math. Compare how much you gain from the art, with how much the victim lost because of the artist. One is likely more than the other, and you’ll know what to do.
B) We’re all human beings and we all deserve second chances.
This is applicable to smaller crimes like saying judgemental things or using problematic language. When the artist concerned comes clean and apologises, and then proceeds to take correctional measures, we can give them the benefit of the doubt and support their recovery. Yes, we don’t really know what happens behind closed doors, but as much as this is a deterrent to forgiving them, isn’t it also an incentive? However, with crimes like sexual assault and other such crimes which have victims who have faced severe personal losses as a direct result of the perpetrator, I wouldn’t consider second chances.
Given the amount of social responsibility that rests on the shoulders of any and all artists, it is nearly impossible to separate the art from the artist. But when there is a dilemma, I’d say, the key is to find the fine line between appreciating art for art’s sake and funding barbarism.
Photo by Mr. TT on Unsplash