Can you separate art from an artist?

No matter how much you might try or want to, you can’t separate an artist from their work (at least not in any meaningful way). Art and writing are both deeply personal forms of self-expression. If an artist or writer is outed as being a shitty person, chances are their art is going to reflect that as well.

That’s not to say you can’t enjoy someone’s work if they’ve ever done something wrong — because we all have at some point — but when someone is credibly accused of being a bigot or a harasser and shows no signs of remorse, you have to chose to either stop supporting them or come to terms with their behavior, because we can’t rightfully operate as if a piece of art suddenly has no creator.

I wrote a piece a few years ago about the metaphorical death of an author. It’s a common idea in literary criticism that basically says a writer’s intentions should have no influence on how we interact with and critique their work, because there are many authors we know little or nothing about (like Shakespeare). It’s the easiest way to control things across the board.

But it’s also not a hard and fast rule, because writing does not exist in a vacuum. Writers write about things that affect them. Mental illness, trauma, and the way we view the world, make it into people’s writing and art all the time. That’s part of what makes art good: it’s capable of tapping into a very vulnerable part of our humanity. But while we can ignore a lot of things when we’re studying the cultural impact of literature written by long dead authors, it’s not right to ignore the same things when we’re talking about writers who are still alive.

This idea can apply to so many different creators out there, but I think J.K. Rowling has been on a lot of people’s minds recently. And as much as it hurts to realize the creator of a beloved franchise holds profoundly bigoted views, we can’t pretend like their deeply held beliefs are incapable of affecting their art, because chances are, those views are as ingrained in their art as they are.

If someone is transphobic, there is going to be transphobia in their writing, at least some of it. If they’re anti-choice, that’s going to come through too. If they’re racist, or sexist, or a known abuser, these aspects of their personality and their worldview are going to influence their art, their writing, their comedy, and how they move through the world. Depending of the nature of the work, it might be in largely benign or unnoticeable ways, but it’s not not going to affect it.

Coming across damning evidence against your favorite creators can be a hard thing to reconcile, especially if their art means a lot to you. If you like something that was created by a “bad” person, then what does that say about you? I want to assure you, it doesn’t say anything about you. We all come to understand our privilege in certain spaces at different times, and we’re constantly growing and learning. Liking a piece of work that was made by a flawed creator doesn’t say anything about you, but the way you respond to that information does.

When you chose to look the other way (and it is a choice), prejudiced artists continue to make money and hold power in their respective industries, often at the expense of marginalized creators, and that really sucks. As a consumer, it’s crucial to stop supporting someone’s work once they’ve shown you their true colors.

Unfortunately, there is no right time or checklist to follow for when you should stop supporting someone. That’s a call you’re going to have to make for yourself and it’s up to you to decide what you believe and where your breaking point is. This can be especially tricky when we’re talking about content that was made by multiple people, but it’s still ultimately up to you to decide how long you are willing to support something, because supporting someone’s work unchecked can have consequences.

You shouldn’t feel bad if you enjoyed a piece of art by someone who later went on to do something hurtful (or many hurtful things). The way you interacted with that piece of art is still valuable to you. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that new information has the possibility to ruin future readings or viewings. It doesn’t invalidate the way you felt about it in the past, but it should influence how you feel about it in the future.

A lot of us look back on our childhoods with nostalgia, and it can hurt to realize you weren’t privy to or too naive to see circumstances that make you uncomfortable as an adult. It can hurt a lot too, because it feels deeply personal. Just like many of us cry or feel profound sadness when a celebrity dies, it’s not because we knew them, it’s because they helped us know ourselves.

Learning a person you previously admired or looked up to isn’t the sort of person you thought they were can hurt as well. It can hurt like hell. But you shouldn’t ignore stuff like that, because pretending something doesn’t have a creator anymore doesn’t help anyone, including you. It allows the creator to continue to make money despite their bad behavior and doesn’t prevent or discourage other people from doing the same thing. It can also be deeply triggering for people to see their loved ones defending an artist who is actively hostile toward them.

What are you supposed to do? Unfortunately, that’s up to you. Every person and every situation is different. “Cancelling” someone the first time they make a mistake doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it just makes it harder for them to apologize and do better, but I understand the urge behind it. If you’ve been hurt by someone or seen enough people refuse to apologize for the hurt they’ve caused you, it can be especially difficult to be let down by someone you don’t even know.

But wherever your breaking point is, the first time someone makes a certain mistake or after repeated offenses, what you are willing to accept is not going to be the same as someone else. The things that are important to you may not be as important to someone else or even important at all, but we should be willing to listen to the people close to us when they say something is hurtful to them. Because even if you would never do something, defending or actively ignoring it when someone you like does it, doesn’t send the right message.

The behavior you’re willing to excuse for artists gives people a pretty good idea of what you’re willing to accept in your day-to-day life and what sort of behaviors you are willing to let slide. Because if you can’t even stand up to people you don’t know doing something inappropriate, how likely are you to stand up against someone you do know? Or how willing are you going to be to apologize when it’s you doing that thing? We’re all still learning and trying to be better people, and a big part of that is holding the creators we interact with (and by extension ourselves) accountable for how we interact with the world.

Because just like a piece of art is not the same without its viewers, it’s nothing without its creators, and you can’t separate the artist from their art. For better or worse, that’s something you have to come to terms with.

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