J.K. Rowling. Kanye West. Michael Jackson. Whether it’s discriminatory comments, bad politics or straight-up criminal offences, the entertainment industry has always been plagued by problematic singers, actors and artists alike. We all recognize that the actions of many of these famous individuals are inexcusable; however do consumers have an ethical responsibility to not indulge ourselves with their products? NBN Opinion investigates: is it possible to separate the art from the artist?
Andrew Kwa (Medill ‘23):
If I ever wanted to purchase any sort of Harry Potter-related literature, film and/or grossly overpriced merchandise, I guarantee you such a compulsion would not arise out of a desire to immerse myself in the rich, progressive universe of Harry Potter that the esteemed LGBTQ+ and POC activist J.K. Rowling has filled with a diverse array of characters.
No, I probably just want to convince myself that magic is real and a viable alternative to a college degree.
The consumption of art is rarely contingent upon any sort of positive moral judgment of the artist. I do not listen to Bleachers because I think every lyric and chord is laced with Jack Antonoff’s righteous virtue; I do not play Super Smash Bros. Ultimate because I believe Masahiro Sakurai will be canonized as a saint, and I most certainly do not read Harry Potter for J.K. Rowling’s role as an activist for marginalized communities.
Separating an artist’s morality from their art is easy since the former is rarely a consideration for my consumption of the latter.
Jo Scaletty (SOC ‘23):
Separating the art from the artist depends on whether the artist can keep a legitimate claim to the art. In the case of J.K. Rowling, for example, most fans dismiss her attempt to remain relevant, specifically the recent tweets confirming her status as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF). For too long, Rowling has not represented her fans. Her work has done far more good with her removed from the piece than with her trying to maintain any relevance she once held. As such, the work belongs to her fans. We must condemn Rowling while remembering that she does not represent Harry Potter in the eyes of any fans.
In other cases, like the one of R. Kelly or Pablo Picasso, the artist is intrinsically tied to the work. R. Kelly's music and his status as a sexual assailant and abuser, both of which came out in the past few years, go together. The two happened simultaneously, and as such, I can't help but think about what he was doing while he was writing and performing these lyrics. His words take on new meaning, and they are colored by the pain he caused. The events happened together, so they should be examined together because he was the same person when he performed as he was when he abused these children. One simply happened louder than the other.
Similarly, it's impossible to say that Pablo Picasso, a staunch misogynist at best, isn't tied to his works; very few people show off a painting by the creator without his name being the prime focus. It is a mistake that we have allowed Picasso's paintings to be brought into the limelight while leaving his misogyny in the past.
We must condemn anyone, artist or otherwise, for views that marginalize groups of people. We must remember, though, who the work belongs to. Is Harry Potter the same series without Rowling's involvement? Do R. Kelly's songs carry the same message when removed from his actions? Is a painting worth as much if it isn't a Picasso?
David Deloso (Medill ‘22):
Whenever I tell people Kanye West is my favorite artist, I always qualify that statement by saying something along the lines of, “But I don’t agree with his politics at all.” Regardless, the past couple years have been a strange time to be a Kanye stan. Ever since Ye revealed himself to be a Trump supporter, it’s been difficult to separate his art from his political views (although it’s been a while since I’ve seen him wear a MAGA hat, so who knows what he believes at this point). It’s especially hard because so much of Kanye’s music is about himself – he’s nothing if not a major narcissist. But something I’ve come to realize is that many artists, Kanye included, are only able to coherently express the ways they view the world through their art.
If you watch a Kanye West interview from 2018, you’ll probably see him ramble somewhat incoherently about mind control, slavery, living in a simulation or something along those lines. But if you listen to Ye, the album Kanye released that same year, you’ll hear him introspect about his inner demons, his family and his hopes for the future. No politics, no MAGA hats and no “dragon energy” (whatever that means). When I listened to that album, I realized that he wasn’t just another racist Trump supporter but rather a deeply troubled man who was severely misguided due to mental health issues. So to answer the original prompt, I think sometimes not separating the art from the artist is the only way to get an honest look at who they are as a person. If I looked at Kanye’s beliefs in a vacuum, my opinion of him as a person would be significantly different from the way I see him given the context of his music. But if he continues to drop trash music, maybe that won’t even stay true.
Gwen Giedeman (SOC ‘23):
As consumers of content, we hold the power to dictate who becomes famous, who earns recognition and who is financially compensated for their work. Our lives are so saturated with media, if there’s something you really love, odds are that a nearly identical piece of art exists out there somewhere. Considering this, why would anyone waste their attention, appreciation and – most significantly – their money supporting a morally bankrupt individual? Even if an artists’ work does not expose their prejudices and hatred, by supporting them despite their ethically corrupt world views, we condone the idea that it’s okay to have these dehumanizing perspectives and that one can find success despite arguably being a horrible person.
For instance, one of my favorite bands of all time used to be The Smiths. Their frontman, Steven Patrick Morrissey, however, has expressed some unsavory opinions recently, saying that Kevin Spacey was “unfairly attacked” for his sexual assault and misconduct allegations, calling reggae music “an absolute, total glorification of black supremacy” and claiming that Chinese people are “a subspecies” because of the animal cruelty in the Chinese cosmetics industry. These horrible takes hardly even scratch the surface of Morrissey’s deep-rooted misogyny, racism and homophobia. As much as I loved The Smiths, I would be a lunatic to support this man in any capacity. Luckily, in the vast sea of music that exists in this world, I’ve found other artists that I love as much, if not more, than The Smiths, including The Cure, Pixies and Joy Division.
Shruti Rathnavel (Weinberg ‘23):
J.K. Rowling’s shitshow of a twitter, Kanye’s questionable sense of self, Louis CK’s rat-in-a-corner diatribes – what do they all have in common? They’re out there because we’ve allowed them to be. We gave them license and attention and then tried to take it away because we thought they didn’t deserve it anymore. But we didn’t sign the release or go to the ballot box. They’re not elected officials; they’re entertainers. And just by passively consuming, we’ve let them into our lives. They didn’t make any promises, and they don’t have any obligation to be good past the obligation that everyone has. Cancel culture isn’t bad because it is punitive but because it points its finger at the wrong end of the cycle.
We want to separate the art from the artist the minute they do something we don’t want to think about, but until then, we glorify content creators and give them a platform. They are just as fascinating, if not more, than what they create. By refusing to separate the art from the artist in the first place, we are making it very likely that at some point they will amplify an opinion we don’t want to hear.
Ashley Fang (Weinberg ‘22):
My short answer is no because the artist’s values and experiences will directly affect what is conveyed through their art. I think it comes down to what each person defines as problematic. For me, I find comments or behaviors that are potentially offensive or harmful for certain groups of people unacceptable – for example, I used to love Michael Jackson’s music when I was very young, but after learning about some of his history, I can no longer get myself to listen to any of his music.
The same applies to R. Kelly’s case. Recently, some racially insensitive posts made by Camila Cabello were discovered, and I can’t stop thinking about them whenever I see her in social media, so I also stopped supporting her music because she made me feel disappointed and uncomfortable. I believe people should be conscious of who they are funding when streaming music, regardless of how great the artists are as musicians.
However, if an artist simply does something I disagree with, but not morally inappropriate, then I wouldn’t mind. For example, I personally disapprove of substance use, but I wouldn’t mind if an artist chooses to go towards that path. I am not concerned with each and every thing an artist does. I don’t really care who they date, how they dress or what they do behind closed doors as long as it is legal and consensual, but I do care if an artist’s behavior goes against my own values and beliefs. Ultimately, I am selfish when it comes to consuming art. I listen to music and go to exhibitions for my own enjoyment, and I will continue to support an artist as long as they don’t make me feel upset.