Can art be separated from the artist?
- Merriam-Webster defines 'cancel culture' as 'the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.' While Pew Research found that 49% of US adults describe the term as 'actions people take to hold others accountable.'
- According to Rolling Stone magazine, after musician R. Kelly was found guilty in 2021 of 'racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child, and kidnapping,' his album sales increased 517%.
- In 2020, Woody Allen's memoir Apropos of Nothing was canceled by its original publisher, Hachette Book Group, due to 'allegations that Allen molested his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was a child.' The book went on to be published by Arcade Publishing, who explained that 'we as publishers prefer to give voice to a respected artist, rather than bow to those determined to silence him.'
- A 2003 study by Pew Internet and American Life Project found that '32 million Americans consider themselves artists and about 10 million of them get some kind of compensation for their creations and performances.'
A separation of art from the artist must be acknowledged, as it is unrealistic to expect absolute morality and ethical behavior from anyone. A person can both create good art and do bad things, as the two traits are not mutually exclusive.
Postmodernists also argue that not only should the artist be separated from their art, but that the artist is, in fact, dead. In The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes says society should approach literature as a completely separate entity from the writer and that readers should not acknowledge that the writer exists at all. Using his theories, experts argue that 'every time spectators encounter art, they make it new, in a way that the artist no longer controls a definitive, final interpretation.'
Furthermore, society should be able to separate art from the artist the same way it separates consumer goods from their roots. After all, it is arguable that nearly every consumer good used today is one that has dark roots. The argument that things cannot be separated from their creator is invalid if we only limit the debate to art.
There is also the possibility that society is too harsh on an artist's mistakes. Due to creators having large followings and a constant magnifying glass on them, they can seemingly make more mistakes than the average person. Many artists also tend to be criticized for things that took place a long time ago and must reap the consequences in the present day. However, it should be considered unfair to judge a modern work by something its creator did in the past.
An artist is quintessentially tied to their art. We do a disservice to all involved when we don’t acknowledge the person behind a piece.
While personal attachments and interpretations to/of art are valid, solely relying on them ignores the artist’s intentions. Unlike math or science, art is subjective. Someone set out to create it with their own biases in mind. Art is, therefore, at the will of the creator at its most basic level, and it is bad faith to ignore its original intention in both an intellectual and historical sense. After all, scholars use art to illuminate personal and social surroundings.
Beyond the theoretical, endorsing or purchasing art empowers the artist through a platform and money.
For example, Roman Polanski, a controversial film director, was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s. Before conviction, he escaped the US for Europe as a fugitive. Despite his status, Polanski has enjoyed a successful career as a director--being nominated for Oscars well into the 21st century. Anyone who funded his projects through production or theater attendance enabled Polanski to continue his career and harm other girls--some of whom have only come forward nearly 50 years later.
The inherent connection between art and artist isn’t always bad. In the cases of James Baldwin, Frida Kahlo, Nina Simone, etc., the artists’ backgrounds enrich their works.
For immoral artists who are years dead, their beliefs offer better and perhaps disappointing understandings of their art. When it comes to those still alive, though, consumption of their art directly impacts their wallets and fame, enabling them to continue their negative behavior without negative consequences.