With today’s “cancel culture,” it often seems like no public figure is safe to appreciate. Work is often popularly judged based on the merits of its creator. Many call for a movement to “separate art from the artist” once some problematic information is brought to light. But one ought to wonder whether it’s actually possible for a piece of art to stand alone from its creator and, if so, whether that’s the way it should be enjoyed. The way to approach this statement is on a case-by-case basis, as there’s never a clear right or wrong answer.
If a person pays to consume some piece of art regardless of whether or not they care for the artist, they’re supporting that artist. The price of an album or a book makes it difficult to avoid thinking about the person behind it. Former film producer Harvey Weinsten has made many popular movies, but before he was convicted, they couldn’t be purchased without financially supporting him. People who simply ignore the artist may still be financing them, thus enabling them to maintain a position of power.
However, the situation seems to be different after an artist has died. If they can no longer reap the benefits of consumer’s support and do no further harm, then maybe it’s OK to buy their work. Work in the public domain is easier to separate from the artist because they’ll never again reap benefits.
Still, many don’t feel comfortable consuming art created by immoral creators regardless of whether or not they gain profit. When it’s revealed that an artist has done a terrible thing, the meaning behind the art might change. Love lyrics suddenly don’t sound as lovely when its writer turns out to be abusive.
Of course, one can appreciate a painting without knowing the artist, but the question remains of whether one can revert to that state of ignorance once an offensive creator is discovered. In some instances, it becomes clear that a creator's twisted values are reflected in their art. Thus, separating the two becomes impossible. But art isn’t always a mirror image of the artist’s crimes. If a song itself isn't promoting negative values, then one might enjoy it independently from its singer.
Still, playing the song of a problematic artist might send the message that it’s OK to support them. Publicly spreading the art could promote the idea that the work of a terrible person is acceptable to consume, and their actions may be overlooked. However, if one’s sure to acknowledge and denounce the crimes of a creator, they may find they can still respect their art. All art has an artist, and every artist will have faults, which is why it’s important to judge the severity of each individual’s actions.
Of course, it's still more complicated, as one individual might have worked alongside hundreds of others in the production of a single film. Art is often produced by many artists, and when one horrible person is involved, the whole creative team is hurt. If an audience chooses to avoid one star, they may in turn avoid all innocent co-stars.
This isn’t a black-and-white issue, so it’s important that one decides for themself what feels right and what doesn’t. A white person may have the privilege to overlook a novel's racist themes while a person of color may not. Men might have an easier time enjoying music with derogatory lyrics that make women uncomfortable. A victim of Harvey Weinstein would likely be much less inclined to watch his movies than the average person. One’s personal preferences develop from how their perception of art is changed by an artist’s actions.
“I think it's possible to separate the art from the artist only when the art doesn’t convey the artist’s problematic beliefs.” Macey Porter, a sophomore sociology major said. “Still, it all depends on a person’s individual experiences and relationship to the issue. So what’s most important, in my opinion, is recognizing the artist’s faults and respecting that others may be more offended by a piece of art than you are.”
To share their disapproval of unethical artists, the public will often call for a boycott. Boycotts aim to stop the spread of harmful art and prevent the artist from profiting. Recently, an uproar across social media was ignited by a statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises announcing the company’s decision to end the production of six Dr. Suess books. The company explained that the pulled books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Many were upset over this action, as they said they felt it was an attack on the beloved children’s author. However, Dr. Suess’ most popular books will remain widely available, and the six pulled from production will no longer share insensitive themes with a young audience.
This case raised the question of whether or not all art containing problematic ideas should be purged from the market. But this isn’t a legitimate fear, as it's widely understood that art is essential to history and should never be discarded. Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to protect their impressionable audience by stopping the spread of ideas that they might not be mature enough to understand.
It’s important to support those who are doing good in their industries. Choosing to consume art created by individuals who enforce good values is how long-term change comes about. Ultimately, there’s a lot of gray area in deciding whether or not to support a problematic artist – the choice is up to each individual. There’s a plethora of art to be enjoyed in the world, and one will never miss out by choosing to leave behind corrupt artists.
Rachel Gordon is a freshman media arts and design major. Contact Rachel at email@example.com