Can We Separate Art From the Artist?

separate the art and 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 historical #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 emotions and the artist no longer is a party to those emotions.” As a result, 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 

9 thoughts on “Can We Separate Art From the Artist?

  1. > One of them pointed out that Woody Allen is a gifted director and also a sex offender.

    Except, of course, he’s not.

      1. The courts of course sided with Allen. So is your question about actual acts of the artists or just accusations?

    1. Yess, that strongly plays a part. But, in the end, it is the spectator that gets the make a decision.

      Adding on to your comment, there are some arts that are inherently bad — Blood Diamond (movie) provides a brilliant insight into it — and consumption of such arts is outright unethical. For instance, our decisions to buy clothes that don’t have work-standards and practice slavery. Here, no matter how good the product is, it is created as a result of another’s oppression. It is one my article’s limitation as I haven’t specifically talked about it.

      But a good music might be a product of immoral artist. Yet, we tend to enjoy the music. It is here, the debate seem more interesting!

  2. I think a similar situation is when you have a friend who displays behaviour you consider un-ethical. Do you compromise your beliefs or your freindship? You can exchange the ‘freindship’ in this speculative scenario with anything beneficial as far as I’m aware; cheap chinese products, nepotism that gets you a good job, free meals at a restaurant you blackmailed.

    Because anything of benefit potentially contributes to your prosperity which in turn contributes to your survival or the security of your position in life, there’s always a balancing of personal benefits against the benefits of others. In situations where the disparity in life conditions is visibly larger it’s an easier decision to make; I have lots of clothes and this person has none, so i don’t need more clothes from them even though I could have them.

    When you make the gap smaller in overall life conditions and / or harder to see, the decision becomes an act of gambling. Information suggests the art was a product of ‘immoral practices’ but you can’t know that. You do know that the art benefits you psychologically, but you can’t know whether this benefit might be the difference between suicide and survival for yourself.

    Given that we are not omniscient we can’t ever have enough information to accurately draw the most justifiable conclusions. Ignorance is very much bliss in these situations and some people really do need bliss in their lives. I personally place weight on those who do not need bliss to consider not what they don’t know (are children working for £1 a year to produce this product) but instead what they do know (I don’t need this cheap jumper, I can go to a charity shop or repair an old one).

    As with a lot of the capitalist / consumer system, many of the consumers of questionable art / products / services have come to attribute importance to things that are not important, they’ve lost sight of what matters in life and in their doubt they consume without restraint, like an animal unsure of how long the winter will be.

    1. As a final note, this article was fantastic, a top example. The length was appropriate, the terminology was not unnecessarily convoluted, the subject was outlined well and remained relevant throughout. There were a few small luls in the tempo that I forgot to note, which was my bad, but very good stuff.

      I’ve wanted a co-host for a debate / discussion series possibly on twitch or youtube for a while, let me know if you’d be interested in that.

  3. Thank you for this exciting article. Perhaps there is another way to see the problem. In this text, we seem to address the socio-economics of the industry of Art more than the idea of Art itself.

    We can think of Art as “an artist creates, through some mystic force known only to the artist, an expression of the self through a given medium”. In this context, it is impossible to separate the Art from the artist, as we inevitably treat them as the same.

    However, it is well to remember that the “self” of the artist in question is very dependant on the environment in which the artist was brought up. Remembering this, we can approach Art as the expression of one “self” in this particular time and place in the world. This allows us to view the artist not as some genius, but rather as being the result of the infinitely complex socio-economic factors that led the artist to create the piece.

    This allows us to properly separate the individual from the Art, by framing Art as the result of our societal interactions with the artist’s expression (it’s artwork). We could even argue the artist’s work never belonged to the artist in the first place.

    When an artist of great talent is found to be morally questionable, one would do well to revisit its work. Applying the idea that the artist work is the result of our society, we can address the “real” question: is the expression of this piece of art tainted by the lack of morality of the artist? Should we be concerned about the ideas vehicled through the artwork of morally questionable artist? Is the art piece, though not related in appearance to artist’s moral failings, a culprit in the propagation of this immorality? After all, it is impossible to properly distinguish immorality within an individual (immoral people don’t think they are immoral). Is it reasonable to think we can properly distinguish the immorality “out of” the artist’s work?

    I, for one, believe that art work cannot and should not stay relevant indefinitely. Times change, societies change. We need to look at Art as the fingerprint of our social consciousness. There is an infinite amount of artwork done by individuals, past, present and future. We need to be able to let go of artwork without the fear of losing Art. It would be immoral to promote immoral artist’s as geniuses and forgive them for their sins because we like their artwork so much. It would not be immoral, however, to keep the artwork as a lesson of history, to remember that our society evolves over time, and thus, it’s Art also evolves over time.

    Thank you for reading my amateur reflection on the subject.

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