March 25

Can You Separate The Art From The Artist?

What if the TV character you love or the singer whose music you adore turns out to be a flawed human being? Will you continue to love the show or listen to the music once you learn about the unsavory character attributes of its creator? In other words, should you, and more importantly, can you separate the art from the artist?

(Note: I use the term artist rather generically to refer to the unique skills and talent someone brings to their field. They can be politicians, sportspeople, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc.)

Some people are culturally plugged in. They know the coolest bars and restaurants in town, the best exhibits in a museum, the most binge-worthy shows on the internet, or the must-listen-to bands on Spotify. They are au-currant, with their fingers on the pulse of popular culture.

I, on the other hand, am always late to the party. That is, if I go at all. My MO is blissful ignorance. As a result, I've stood on the sidelines, clueless, at many excited water-cooler conversations, as well-informed friends or colleagues discuss shocking TV show cliffhangers or the earth-shattering nature of the concert they attended over the weekend.

Every once in a while, though, FOMO will get to me. And so it was, in the summer of 2017, I decided to watch the Netflix political thriller series House of Cards four years after its first release. And I dove right in, enthusiastically binge-watching hours of television for weeks. I was caught up on the show by fall and eagerly waiting for the new season to drop. Then, disaster struck.

Crashing down like a House of Cards

Kevin Spacey, who played the role of Frank Underwood, one of the main characters on the show, was alleged to have deep dark undertones to his personal character. The accusations against Spacey were serious and disturbing. He was eventually dropped from the show's sixth (and final) season, and the series itself ended shortly after.

Like many others who only knew Spacey through this art, I, too, felt betrayed. I couldn't bring myself to watch the show after the allegations surfaced. It felt morally wrong. I wasn't able to separate the art from the artist.

By no means is House of Cards the only show I've had to abandon because I was conflicted between the art and the real-life persona of the artist. Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bad albums are so strongly associated with my teen years that it's hard to unravel my childhood memories without a twinge of sadness.

And the conundrum isn't limited to just pop art, either.

The fan club that never was

At the risk of being labeled a nerd, I idolized physicist Richard Feynman enough to start a fan club. But then, I stumbled upon accounts of Feynman's lack of morals and predatory behavior towards women. My idol took no time to come crashing down from his pedestal.

The examples are plenty. At the risk of gross generalization, I'll say that eventually, more often than not, celebrities show themselves to have moral failings. And, almost like clockwork, the conundrum of us not being able to separate the art from the artist presents itself over and over again.

So, the $64K question is this: should you, and more importantly can you, separate the art from the artist? Will I ever be able to listen to Thriller or revel in the genius of Feynman's teachings without conflict?

Apparently, I'm not the only one with this dilemma. It's a question that bugs many. Consequently, there are many opinions on what to (or not to) do; and whether art can exist independent of its artist.

I ruminated on experts' opinions on the subject in the hope of settling the arguments I was having with myself.

Here's where I landed.

Can you separate the art from the artist?

No. I can't.

An artist's uniqueness is really what creates art. So, there will always be a degree of intertwining between the artist's personality and the art. And that's that.

On the other side, we art aficionados are human, not robots. We aren't capable of cold compartmentalization of our feelings that would allow us to appreciate the art when we cannot appreciate the artist. There's too much cross-wiring in our neural circuitry to separate our rational and emotional sides.

The result: It's a struggle to appreciate the art without thinking about the artist.  

That said, here are some ways to help us rationally evaluate and temper our feelings when our favorite artists go rogue.

 1. The extremes are a non-issue

The universally reviled monster in human form, Hitler, was a struggling wannabe artist. In his early days, Hitler drew postcard views of Vienna and sold them to tourists. Though never good enough to be accepted into art schools, he continued to draw, producing many watercolor works in his lifetime.

Hypothetically speaking, even if Hitler's artwork were any good (They weren't. An art historian described the works as those by a moderately ambitious amateur), it is easy for us to completely disregard, without qualms, any art produced by someone so heinous. Hitler was so evil and had so much blood on his hands that nothing else about his personality mattered.

In other words, when art is created by someone whose nature is borderline inhuman, the art becomes wholly infused with the traits of its creator. There is no way, or even a need, to separate the art from the artist in such cases.

2. To err is human

We live in a culture of celebrity takedowns. The more popular a celeb is, the more pressure there is to dig up dirt on them. And, that is not hard at all, is it? While we humans are capable of incredibly complex things, at times, we can be incredibly stupid too, celebrities included. Celebrities, especially (something about being in the public eye.)

With the ubiquitous presence of cameras and recording devices, it is really not that difficult to catch someone saying or doing something stupid or making poor judgments. In fact, I'm amazed it doesn't happen more often.

Yes, with great power comes great responsibility. But to make a big deal of an occasional slip-up is harsh. Because, like a dispersing pollen storm, aspersions cast on a person's reputation are almost impossible to salvage completely.

The takeaway is this: Everyone deserves a second chance. It's worth letting someone have the benefit of doubt once, even twice, before we call to cancel.

3. Refrain from judging yesterday's actions by today's rules

Remember when it used to be okay to smoke on airplanes, or for that matter, anywhere? The smoke was as dangerous to passive smokers then as it is now.

Thankfully, as a society, we've wised up to the fact that smoking kills and have designed systems where smokers can still poison themselves if they choose to but have no right to kill others around them. Asking someone today why they smoked in their bedroom forty years ago is an exercise in futility.

Though hard to believe, we are becoming better people. Our collective consciousness is evolving.

Take, for instance, literacy. In 1820, only every 10th person was literate. Today, more than eight out of ten people can read.

More than half of the world's population now live in democracies with civil liberties compared to less than 1% in 1815.  

Getting woker

We are way more woke today than yesterday and getting woker by the day. But, if you're old enough, I'm sure you can recall a time when your racist neighbor would spout some nonsense, and you'd simply chalk it to their senility and lack of emotional intelligence and move on with your life.

Not so anymore. We seem to be caught in the cycle of judging even past actions by present-day rules. And that can be a big problem.

Judging a bygone artist by today's rules isn't helpful. By no means am I condoning a historical artist's character flaws: all I'm saying is they lived in a different time and probably in a society that tolerated a lot more failings.

But it can go the other way too. History can treat someone more favorably than they were treated during their time.

We now revere Galileo, the father of modern physics. But in his time, Galileo was imprisoned for his theory on heliocentrism and accused of heresy, a crime in those days that was considered far greater than how we view sexual harassment today.

4. The lens of time

There are two ways to get over hurt. We could get older and forget (not by choice) about who, where, or what hurt us. Or, we could let time heal our wounds.

Picasso was known to be a womanizer and misogynist. Two women in his life died of suicide, while two others had nervous breakdowns. Yet, Picasso is characterized as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

The lens of time can make a big difference. It is possible to excuse an affront after many years rather than when we're right in the midst of it.

We tend to brush off escapades by artists we didn't directly witness. It's harder to forgive the antics of artists we can see for ourselves.

The wise thing to do would be to view any outrage we're feeling now through the lens of time. Ask yourself, will this matter 5,10, 20 years from now? Then decide if it's worth fuming over.

5. Different strokes for different people

Not all slights carry the same impact for all people.

When an artist is accused of a moral failing, our personal relationship to the ethical dilemma at stake can play a significant role in whether we can separate the art from the artist.

I'm going to get politically incorrect for a moment here and say it's easier to brush away claims of gender inequality if you're a man. Sure, men can understand what it may feel like to be treated less than equal. But without actually experiencing such inequality, men can more easily look past an artist's misogyny to focus on the art.

On the other hand, if you or someone close to you has been the victim of gender discrimination, your triggers will be strong. Your antennae will be up in no time if you hear of your favorite artist exhibiting sexist behavior. Then, it can become all the more difficult to dissociate the art from the artist.


J. K. Rowling started to write crime novels under a fake pen name, Robert Galbraith, because millions of people had obvious expectations of what a book by the author of the Harry Potter series should look like. No one can blame her for wanting to get a fresh start in a new genre and steer clear of her fans' expectations.

There is no doubt that art is infused with the personality of the artist. People who knew Van Gogh saw many similarities between his unrestrained personality and the wild nature of his paintings, signified by emphatic brushstrokes and textured forms.

Understandably, therefore, we are in a quandary when the moral failings of its creator taint the art we love: we find it very difficult to separate the art from the artist. When that happens, it helps to have a few guidelines in place to help us cope.

Artists, especially those who have made it don't have it easy by any means. With great power comes great responsibility. And when they do err, the higher the pedestal they are on, the greater is the fall.

But before we rev up a Twitter mob, it's worth evaluating our own moral standing and learn not to throw stones when living in a glasshouse.

Just like how beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, the decision to continue to love art created by an out-of-favor artist is, and should always remain, personal.

For some of us, art can transcend the personal failings of the artist. That isn't a good or a bad thing. It just is what it is.

The rest of us have to make peace with the fact that we can't separate the art from the artist. No explanations are necessary. But neither are culture wars on Twitter.

To each her own.



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