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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, February 23, 2024

Shades of Gray: Separating art from artist

We’ve all done it: listened to a Chris Brown classic, rapped along to R. Kelly’s “Ignition” (2002) or watched a Harvey Weinstein masterpiece, thinking “I know he’s a bad person and did __ but this [song/art/movie] is just so good!”

Pop culture is, it seems, incessantly plagued by the recurring trope of the brilliantly talented and extraordinarily popular artist who committed some despicable crime or simply turned out to be a bad person. And though perhaps few deny the validity of allegations made against their beloved celebrities or attempt to excuse their actions, most of the divisiveness comes from a pressing moral issue: should we separate the art from the artist?

On one hand, there are those who believe that we shouldn’t “blame” the book for its author, the song for its artist or the movie for its filmmaker. On the other are those who believe that it is entirely unethical for us as consumers to continue to “consume” art made by those whose actions are inexcusably terrible, unlawful and generally contradictory to our sense of morality.

The former perspective is certainly tempting — I cannot deny that I find XXXtentacion’s lo-fi rap is calming or that Kanye’s “Heartless” (2008) made it on my 2000s throwback playlist. But it has become impossible for me to listen to such artists without at least a twinge of guilt — the feeling that, for less than three minutes of enjoyment listening to X’s “changes” (2018), I’m supporting an artist accused of battery and the domestic abuse of his pregnant girlfriend and who glorifies violence in his own music.

That is not to say, of course, that consuming the work of those who have done terrible things means you support their actions — watching “The Cosby Show” (1984–92) or “Roseanne” (1988–2018) reruns doesn’t make you an apologist for sexual assault or racism. But try as we might, it is both unethical and illogical to completely separate the art from the artist.

Art is often seen as “other” than, or inherently above the paltry troubles of the mortal world, but the reality is that art — whether it is music, movies, books or paintings — is undeniably influenced by factors from the world around us. Any work an artist creates is inextricably intertwined with everything in their life, from political inclinations and morals to their drug use, upbringing or disastrous romances.

The same artistic genius who created such blockbuster films as “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Manhattan” (1979) also allegedly sexually abused his daughter; the same person behind arguably television’s most iconic depiction of black middle-class families, Bill Cosby, was accused of assaulting and raping 60 people.

There are not two Bill Cosbys, Woody Allens, Roseanne Barrs, XXXtentacions, Kanyes, Harvey Weinsteins, R. Kellys or Chris Browns — for all of the aforementioned artists, the same mind that engineered the inspired works of art that we all know and love committed the heinous and abhorrent crimes that we condemn.

And so begs the question: if artists don’t separate their art from themselves, why should we?