Can art be separated from the artist?

World famous a**hole Ernest Hemingway. Great books though. Photo courtesy of Pixabay


Ernest Hemingway was an alcoholic abuser. Pablo Picasso was misogynistic to the point of grotesqueness. Ye, — formerly known as Kanye West — is notoriously antisemitic. Tay K has been convicted of murder. Andy Warhol victimized his own friends for art’s sake. Dave Chappelle is openly transphobic and seems to double down on it with every special. 

Yet what do all of these figures have in common? They have made incredible works of art, applauded by critics and audiences alike. Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater? 

This has long been a debate in our culture, with the phrase “separating the art from the artist” being the premier way of describing this phenomenon. 

My general philosophy is this: separate the art from the artist until you can’t. Artists need to be held accountable — like anyone else — when they make mistakes. Making great art is not an excuse to be a horrible person. But there is something to be said for trying to protect and keep great art if it is not in and of itself harmful. 

To be clear: harmful in this case does not mean frustrating or stupid. Some would decry modern art — such as paintings by Mark Rothko — and call its contributions harmful. You constantly hear the cry of “Anyone can do that!” about modern art. This is not only wrong — but not the point. 

Steve Berta, a second-year graduate student in the MFA program for creative writing, describes this. 

“I think we’ve [culturally] come to the realization that everything on some level is subjective,” Berta said. 

Subjectivity seems to be at the center of art consumption. You like what you like, and hate what you don’t like. But when it comes to all art, everyone has a line that makes them uncomfortable, based on their life experiences and reference point. 

“There are things that I find jarring in art,” Berta said. “There are things that I find [in] other people’s realities sometimes are shocking to me. But I think that as long as there’s an authentic feeling there, it has a place.” 

This does not mean simply accepting bigotry as authentic truth. There’s a process as responsible consumers that we have to go through before engaging with an artist. The first step is to look at the contributions of the artist: if it itself isn’t problematic, you may be in the clear. But, if the artist overtly puts their problematic ideas into their art, such as Ye many times on Vultures 1, then that itself is something I can’t consume. There is no positive contribution — even if the song sounds good — that can outweigh openly admitting your bigotry. 

Someone with a personal perspective on this is Chase Schulte, a junior international studies and English double major. 

“I do think art can be separated from the artist,” Schulte said. “But for me and my personal biases, as a person who grew up culturally Jewish, it is hard for me [with people] like [Ye]. You can’t deny that he has added so much to the music industry, but it’s hard for me to picture him as two different people, [artist and person].” 

This goes back to the blending of personal ideas and art. This is why it is imperative that artists like Ye get held accountable for their actions, and this means more than just posting an apology. 

What would be real accountability in my eyes wouldn’t be punishment, which would be everyone collectively stopping listening to Ye — it would be reparation. It is obvious that Ye caused harm to the Jewish community. Some far-right groups have even adopted his bigoted message and used it in hate rallies. If all the people who care about outright bigotry stop listening to Ye, that takes away money and attention from him, which is a good end, but it doesn’t solve the problem in the slightest. Ye will still continue to have followers who outright don’t care or forget about his actions, and he will still be antisemitic, if not more so. 

What would be real positive progress would be for a widespread call for Ye to speak with Jewish leaders, donate to Jewish schools, do service within the community he caused harm to and learn what great harm those ideas can do and have done historically. 

Throwing out his contributions to the art world — music or fashion — would not only be irresponsible but downright impossible. There’s no telling how many artists Ye has influenced, in both worlds. He has pushed the envelope sonically, pushing not only rap but even gospel to new heights. These are positive contributions that we should take — provided we do our best to hold Ye accountable. 

All artists will have flaws because art — a way of translating the human experience — is a complicated thing to create, which leads to its creators being just that. Whether it be in writing, music, painting, dance or comedy, you have to be especially human in order to serve as a translator for the human experience. 

Junior English major Miranda Emerick reflects this view and adds a strategy to improve art consumption. 

“It comes down to whether or not the song or the book or whatever itself is directly harmful,” Emerick said. “There’s always going to be something that you engage with where the artist is doing something harmful. But I think it says a lot when you go out of your way to seek out people that are doing bad things, which is why in my reading [and consumption] I try to find people that are doing really good things and engage with them.” 

This is another way of reparation that can be helpful. If we, as consumers, shift the paradigm to artists doing really good things, it shows bigoted or otherwise problematic artists what we want from our creators and their art. 

However, everything in this economic structure relies on exploitation in some way. Normal commodities do not differ from art at all in that their creators are largely flawed and the creations are created in a flawed way. We just don’t see the process of our goods actually being made. Nike uses sweatshops. The grocery stores use factory-farmed meat — they don’t even pay their workers a fair wage. Yet there is no talk of not being able to separate the corporation from the product. We just do it automatically, largely for our own sanity. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and that includes art. 

There are many immediate exceptions to this. First, if the artist is dead, what harm is there financially in consuming their art? For example, Michael Jackson obviously has quite a tainted legacy and has been held accountable and decried. But, he is dead. He literally cannot benefit from the money generated from his music. Second, if art has already been bought, there is no harm in consuming it. If your dad hands down a vinyl of  “Off The Wall”, you can listen to it with no worries. The same goes for paintings already owned by a museum or exhibits specifically pointing out problematic legacies of artists. These loopholes can give us space to breathe while we work on holding artists accountable. 

The bottom line is that contributions to society, whether they are books, paintings, inventions or performances, can be valuable despite the flaws of their creator. Meaning-making is the supreme part of the human experience, and that meaning isn’t made without art. But we need to hold creators accountable — restoratively — for their actions, or we risk not only allowing bigotry but also allowing great ideas to become inseparable from their very flawed creators.


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