Can We Separate Art From the Artist?

As I was strolling around the art faculty of Delhi University, I encountered two of my coursemates — intensely — conversing about the dilemma in the separation of art from the artist. I joined along. One of them pointed out that Woody Allen is a gifted director and also a sex offender. In that case, “Would you still choose to watch Manhattan?” To which, I said: “Yes, absolutely.” After much deliberation on this ethical dilemma, I’ve come to believe that there is no one absolute answer.

#MeToo Movement

The historic #MeToo movement, which gained momentum in 2017, has thrown a spotlight into the men-of-art and their unlicensed abuse of power to sexually molest and harass others. Roman Polanski assaulted a minor; Harvey Weinstein predated women; R. Kelly was videotaped having sex and urinating on a minor; Woody Allen was accused of molesting his adoptive daughter; Pablo Picasso has molested and hurled abuses at women all his life; and so forth. However, each of these morally-repugnant-individuals has produced works that marvel the spectators for ages. 

Polanski’s movie The Pianist is one of the most illustrious depiction of the world war and human emotions. Or Woody Allen’s 1977 release Annie Hall is an aesthetical representation of romance and comedy. Or Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica embodies the most powerful critique of war. As a result of complexity emanating due to the impact, the art has on the spectators’ emotions, and the unjustifiable actions of the artist, it becomes an intrinsic ethical dilemma.

The question is: Can we separate art from its artist? The art-artist conundrum has found two — conflicting — poles of opinions. Those who believe that art could be separated from artist argue that art is something meaningful and it needs to be embraced. And the artist needs to be condemned or punished, not as a creator of the art, but as an individual who has committed the crime. They argue that you can be a bad guy and still create good art. So here, they believe, art isn’t an issue, but the actions of the artist are.

The Death of The Author

One of the most profound arguments comes from the postmodernist school of thought. For some of them, the artist wasn’t just separate from the art, but the artist was dead. Roland Barthes titled his declaration in the form of “The Death of the Author” in 1967. The author doesn’t create a text, Barthes argued, but the reader by reading it. Using his premise, one can argue, every time spectators encounter an art, they make it new, in a way that the artist no longer controls a definitive, final interpretation.

One of the colleagues at my university explains: “The art provokes certain emotions that the artist no longer is a party to them.” Therefore, supporting/appreciating art is not equivalent to encouraging/endorsing the actions of the artist.

Art As The Product of Social Privileges

Those who believe that art cannot be separated from art, argue: “Art doesn’t exist in its own altruistic, alternate universe.” It is a product of societal privileges. As Maria Gracia, a senior editor of The ARTery writes, “The art that we uphold as genius or indispensable from human history is also of this world — tethered to and a product of existing systems of power, like capitalism and white supremacy.”

To put it bluntly, sales of the art directly benefit the artists. Watching Kevin Spacey directly benefits him. Reading William Goulding directly benefits him. Buying a DVD of a Woody Allen movie directly benefits him. Thus, individual artists and their art are a part of a collective whole defining our socio-economic transactions.

Writer Roxanne Gay in her essay “Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?” argues that we should not overlook an artist’s sins and not separate the art from the artist. She writes, “We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius.” As Jacob Kuppermann puts it: “By creating a culture that excuses the misdeeds of the powerful, talented or rich, we make it harder for their victims, from fellow celebrities to anonymous teenagers, to retain their dignity in society.”

Individual’s Proximity and The Art 

Broadly speaking, we elicit three divergent responses to the art-artist conundrum: Yes. No. And it’s complicated. I propose that each of these responses emanate from two parameters. One, the individual’s proximity to the victim and the cause. Two, the individual’s affinity to the artist and the art.

Let’s suppose, I like listening to an artist who is also a sex-offender. Here, my three plausible scenarios would be: First, if I like the music and I do not have as much proximity with the victim, I would certainly choose to say, “We can separate art from the artist”.

Second, if I have propinquity towards the victim, or am sympathetic to their cause, then, I would abandon listening to the artist altogether. In that case, one can argue that we cannot separate art from the artist.

In the third scenario, where I like the art and am sympathetic towards the victim and their cause, I am more likely to be stuck in a dilemma. “How can the artist do this?” In a situation like that, I am more likely to listen to music while also feeling guilty about it.

Therefore, it’s complicated.

Thus, the answer to the art-artist conundrum is deeply personal. There is no way to produce a collective moral standard to arrive at a conclusive distinction between art and the artist. That being said, we can also not sufficiently establish that the artist is what provides value to the art. In the art-artist conundrum, it’s the individuals that hold a moral compass for themselves while arriving at an answer. And there may be no answer to this debate.

Image: David Giesbrecht/Netflix