Is Art Separate From The Artist?

PHOTO COURTESY | FLICKR.COM
‘Frank’ a portrait by Chuck Close, who recently had sexual harassment allegations brought against him.

Like many art lovers in America, I feel that I can divide my consumption of media and resultant ability to enjoy it into two distinct eras: Pre-2018 and Post-2018. Now that the initial fervor surrounding #MeToo and #TimesUp has dissipated and I’ve had time to reflect, I don’t think I am alone in feeling that my views toward any films I watch, music I listen to, or paintings I look at have more or less been changed forever.

I don’t think it will ever really go back to the way it was.

As more and more pieces of media become tainted by accusations of sexual assault or worse, we are left with a question that has been asked with increasing frequency. 

Is art separate from the artist?

The short answer is that I honestly don’t know. The possible interpretations of this question itself are numerous. If the art is not separate from the artist, we have to decide whether it is still ethical to support an artist who may be abusive, racist, a murderer or any number of similar heinous titles.

If the art is separate from the artist, we must concede that it is acceptable for abusive people to carry on with their careers unbothered provided they are talented enough, which certainly doesn’t feel right.

In essence, I feel that the main targets of any ensuing chaos ought to be the abuser themselves, not the innocent people who still sometimes listen to songs that meant a lot to them in high school. I do think that it is possible to consume media created by problematic people, as long as fans concede that the artist’s actions are indeed problematic and don’t attempt to make excuses for the artist or victim blame.

I make this distinction because I recognize that letting go of certain artists can be difficult and I would never judge anyone for struggling not to enjoy a piece of art that really meant a lot to them once. However, I will judge you for making excuses for evil people and accusing their victims of lying.

In multiple alternative music forums I frequent, I have seen people share that they feel uncomfortable listening to artists like Brand New or PWR BTTM whose members have been accused of sexual misconduct, only to be met with a barrage of mansplaining comments about how they need to accept that art is separate from the artist.

This is the wrong way to go about it. It’s fine if you personally have trouble letting go of an artist that really helped you at one point, but it’s not fine to tell other people how to process their feelings about problematic individuals and any associated trauma they might have.

In my personal life, I will admit that I still consume media created by problematic individuals to a certain extent. My comfort level is really dependent on what exactly the artist did and whether it bleeds over into their music. I don’t have trouble listening to some problematic artists as long as their actions aren’t too abhorrent and there is room for redemption. A few distasteful remarks are easier to stomach, sexual assault accusations are not.

My most conflicting and unshakeable problematic fave will always be Morrissey. I had the entire Smiths discography and most of his solo career on my iPod touch in middle school. Even read his autobiography cover to cover, to this day his ability to vocalize my teenage angst in the form of maniacal falsetto screeching is unparalleled by any other musician.

Anyone who has had more than a few conversations with me knows about my nearly religious infatuation with the Pope of Mope (forgive me), who continues to obliterate me emotionally any time he opens his mouth and ends ups sounding like my bigoted uncle Butch.

Luckily Morrissey’s history at least has remained clear of any sexual scandal or abuse accusation, however, his recent defense of Harvey Weinstein and vague racist remarks are completely unforgivable and have made his new material unlistenable for me.

This is largely because his newest release is an example of one piece of art that is not remotely separate from the artist or his actions. It’s basically just him wailing about the lying news media and how the internet is bad over a jangly guitar and synthesizer, which feels pretty uncomfortable and certainly related to his highly publicized battles with literally any magazine that has had the unfortunate opportunity to interview him and catch him saying something characteristically offensive.

I have no problem listening to all of his previous work that is untainted by his controversial views, however, you can still catch me sobbing to “I Know It’s Over” every Friday night like clockwork.

Related context that I don’t think is considered enough in this debate is that we never seem to apply this scrutiny to older celebrities who are arguably far more despicable and less socially aware than current ones and received almost zero social backlash. John Lennon sang openly about his wife beating habits and is remembered as a symbol of pacifism and youthful idealism. David Bowie and Jimmy Page both took turns dating the same underage groupie- Lori Maddox, who was just 14 years old when she first slept with Bowie.

Charlie Chaplin’s three wives were all under the age of 18 when he married them to avoid statutory rape charges, and it is even speculated that Humbert Humbert, the pedophile protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic “Lolita” was based on Chaplin.

This isn’t to disparage or discredit the recent trend of exposing current artists, only to highlight that Hollywood has a long and dark history of covering for awful people so that they can keep making money. If we’re going to boycott that practice, we need to at least be ideologically consistent and accept that this also entails ending our consumption of nearly all of the canonical greats of music and film.

Alternatively, we can accept the influence that these artists’ creations have had on us yet remain critical of their actions and support their victims in taking legal action. I feel that the second one is more practical on a global scale, however, those who wish to stop their consumption of artists like the ones mentioned in this article are valid and have every right to avoid media that makes them uncomfortable or brings up past trauma.

The question of whether or not we can enjoy a problematic artists’ content is an enduring one, and there may not be a correct answer. What I know for sure, though, is that the best course of action is certainly not to victim blame those who do come forward about the corruption in Hollywood, or militantly defend your favorite artist just because you enjoy their content. To completely stop all consumption of problematic content would be close to impossible, so it is important just to be critical consumers. What we certainly can do is make sure to support victims and encourage legal action against artists who are revealed to be abusers.

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