On Separating the Art From the Artist

"A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it." — Samuel Johnson

What should we do when brilliant works of art were created by horrible people? It's long been debated, when considering the foibles, flaws, misdeeds, or even crimes that an artist may have been guilty of — to what degree should it shade our view of their work? Should sufficiently egregious acts render an artist's work unenjoyable or even unacceptable? Or should we separate the art from the artist? If so, should we do this in all cases or only some? If only some, by what criteria should we choose?

The fact is, it’s not always possible to separate the art from the artist, try as one might. But we should, by default, strive to separate them as our ideal. Each instance should then be evaluated on a case by case basis, and under certain doomed circumstances, that effort to separate the two should be abandoned.

Taking the Good With the Bad

Creative genius — and this applies to spheres outside of art, as well — often comes with a different kind of mind than normal people have. A population of individuals who think thoughts that never occur to most people, sometimes that no one’s ever thought before, who push boundaries, envision reality from imagination, and rebel against normality, are going to be highly atypical. This population will reliably be over-represented in quirkiness, eccentricity, deviancy, and anti-social or self-destructive behavior. This is not to say that all artists are like this, nor that it's a prerequisite for creativity. It certainly doesn’t mean that being an artistic genius excuses immoral actions. But it is an observation worth noting. To deny this is simply delusion. To some extent, you have to take the good with the bad.

We know, for example, that people who choose work that sometimes entails physical violence tend to be more aggressive than the average person. I would imagine such people are involved in higher than average rates of off the clock violence, threats of violence, or intimidation. Does career choice excuse that behavior? Not at all. But, I mean, are we really that surprised that bouncers or SWAT guys tend to get into more fist fights than actuaries or pediatricians? Point being, there are niches in society that fill a market need, but which, to some degree, either correlate with or attract a certain type of person prone to certain types of shortcomings. This is a useful perspective to keep in mind. If we tried to purge all such people from these various niches, we may not be left with enough to fill the need, or we might see a decrease in quality. It’s also not as though morally purifying some area of society magically reforms these aberrant individuals, or somehow blips them out of existence. They’re still out there, they still need to eat, and they will find another niche — we’d only be shuffling the deck, not changing the game.

When Art Cannot Be Separated From the Artist

Sometimes, it’s just impossible to separate the two. If a work of fiction contains racist characters, this should be no more of an issue than a work of fiction depicting thieves or killers (that it is a problem for some is itself a problem). But if a work of fiction contains racist themes, or racist depictions of certain groups, and the author is known to have been a racist, even by the standards of their day, then it is justifiably difficult to extricate the art from the artist — they are too closely intertwined. When the sins of the artist are sewn directly into their art, it becomes nearly impossible to tear the two apart. 

Also, if an artist's crimes were of such magnitude that they are actually more known for their crimes than their art, it's hardly a surprise that the art will be overshadowed. Similarly, in the case of an individual whose crimes were heinous, and who wasn't even really an artist, but rather simply produced a few works of art as a side hobby — we cannot expect their legacy to be separated from their art.

The type of art sometimes matters too. Something created by a single person will generally be more susceptible to the taint of their wrongdoings than a collaborative or ensemble project. If a poet turns out to be an ax murderer, it will usually be harder to read their poetry without that fact in the back of one’s mind than it would be watching a film screen-written by an ax murderer. But again, these things are case by case.

Art and Audience

This whole issue is particularly relevant now, as cultural forces are actively trying to collapse all distinction between art and artist, even in real time. This means not only are some artists' works being posthumously tarnished and marginalized, but ongoing work is being cancelled to punish past misdeeds of wayward artists while they yet live. But if the artist is brilliant, their audience, which is likely to be large, shares in this punishment. As Dave Chappelle joked of Kevin Spacey, who in 2017 was credibly accused by a number of men of sexual misconduct, some of which having been minors at the time:

"Kevin Spacey shouldn't have done that shit to that kid. He was 14 years old, and was forced to carry a grown man's secret for 30 years. Jesus Christ, he must have been busting at the seams with that. The saddest part is, if he were able to carry that secret for six more months, I would get to know how 'House of Cards' ends."

As it happened, that final season of House of Cards was made, bizarrely absent Spacey's integral main character. The disjointed, out-of-character final season that resulted is generally recognized to have been a profound disservice to the series and its tens of millions of fans.

That's the thing with art. Like a child who, though born to parents, becomes their own person; when art is put out there, it becomes part of the world — a thing unto itself. Art belongs as much to the audience as it does to the creator. As Samuel Johnson once wrote: "A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it." To erase, cancel, or bury a work of art over the sins of its creator removes the audience from the equation, as though the audience somehow doesn't matter. But without an audience, it ain't art. If a painter paints in the woods and no one's around to see it, whatever else it may be, that shit ain’t art. Art is not mere content, nor the act of its creation. It's what the audience feels inside when they experience it. Then and only then is the art complete. Artists may use a variety of different mediums, such as motion picture, sound, color on canvas, written words, or live performance, but this is an illusion. Fundamentally, there is only one medium upon which all art is created: the mind of the audience.

Separating the art from the artist isn't just preferable, it's indispensable. For otherwise, it's not art in the first place.


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