Separating Art from The Artist
As the new season of House of Cards is about to air, I can’t help but reminisce about the conversation I had with a tutor at the African Women in Media Conference.
I tell her that I had made a video essay discussing if we should separate the art from the artist.
In the video, I had ascertained that our inability to separate the artist from the art gives the artist more power than the art, and this burdens the art with unnecessary baggage which in turns belittles the beauty of the art.
She bluntly refused, No! I don’t agree. The artist must and should have more power than the art.
This back and forth led us to discuss the Kevin Spacey predicament; Kevin was accused of abusing a young boy many years ago, and the victim decided to speak up recently under the #metoo movement.
I tell her how conflicted I get with this issue, as I realize and acknowledge my bias with Kevin. I also find myself sympathizing for him. Even though I am aware that he won’t be going to court because there’s no concrete evidence, we know he might not be getting any role anytime soon and as a big fan of his acting skills, it breaks my heart.
She replies, yes! He might not be getting another job but he has made a lot of money already; he was already old and due for retirement. He is not in any way paying for what he did.
Oh! He isn’t? I ask her. So, what exactly should be the verdict here because I was of the opinion that he’s paying for his crime
We need justice Lolo! We must take everything from him.
Of course! We do need justice I reply, but it seems to me that what you seek is revenge and not justice.
What’s wrong with seeking revenge?
Absolutely nothing! I say, but don’t expect me to seek revenge as well.
She tells me that she would question the ethics of someone who fights against abuse but finds reasons to excuse Kevin and other artists with sexual abuse allegations. That she aims to have the same level of integrity as Arundhati Roy; the Indian author best known for her novel The God of Small Things – Arundhati had refused to attend her publishers’ event because an organization in India that she didn’t support their values sponsored the event.
I found it remarkable, and I am sure you do too. Such level of conviction is applaudable but what if I was one that puts a high value on things like loyalty and friendship. I ask her ‘Doesn’t it show integrity on my part if I decide to attend an event to show support to a friend regardless of if an organization I don’t support will be in attendance?”
Believe me, when I tell you that I went to bed thinking about the conversation. I couldn’t shake off some of the things that she said, as she made me rethink a lot of things. I began to ask myself the question “What exactly will be the breaking point for me- What would make me completely reject an artist and their art?”
I realized that child abuse might just be it for me. I don’t see myself grooving to the song of one who abuses kids but I wouldn’t mind reading their books or admiring their painting or sculptures. I believe this could be because I don’t get to see the faces of the perpetrators, making it easier to disassociate the artist from the art.
The next day, I decided to seek people’s opinions regarding the issue and of course I went to twitter. I asked my followers where they drew the line and what factors came into play when deciding if to separate the art from the artist.
A number of replies caught my attention.
@greatnnamani – Art should be enjoyed for its inherent beauty, irrespective of the stories that surround it as human nature is never exclusively good or bad and it is this internal conflict that makes art so beautiful.
To buttress his point, he shows a sculpture called “The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini”. The art depicted arguably the highest form of sexual offense – rape, but it’s still ogled by hundreds of thousands each year in the museum where it’s displayed.
@oraeekene – Art like innovation is usually initiated from inspiration, which exists as a concept neutral to identity. The same way we don’t judge the usefulness of innovations by who made it but what it does for us, the same goes for the art.
This is an excellent point, so I probe harder – I believe it’s easier to separate these artists from their art for me but when we discuss sexual abuse, I realize it’s hurtful because a huge number of women experience it all the time. This could be one of the reasons they refuse to associate with the art and artist.
@oraeekene – Could be! But all this depends on the level of attachment. Unlike say the physical innovation like drugs or home appliances, where there is a shift from the innovator to mass production by companies and therefore a perceived ownership of those or organizations in the field which they occurred. The utility art creates isn’t mass produced and is always tied to the creator especially in visual art where the artist/creator is always visible. The responsibility of the art then falls on them.
But this level of visibility and attachment differs among individual viewers. Some will be very aware of who did the art and many won’t. Also how the utility is experienced from art or innovations differ for each individual. For example, some would only care for how tasty their Starbucks coffee is because their awareness and utility are only gained from the coffee and not those behind it.
While others need to know about the maker of the coffee to enjoy it fully, and if the coffee maker seems racist, no matter how tasty the coffee is, it would bear less of no utility to them ( at the psychological level might even suddenly taste bad)
@empress_xtiana – Often times, I am not even concerned about the artist, but I think this happens when I know the art before the artist but situations where I know the artist before the art, it becomes dicey.
@Omzin8a – Do we show respect to art because of the character of the artist, or do we accept the artist’s character because of the content and quality of her/her art?
It’s difficult to draw the line because an artist defines and is defined by their art. I think it also contexts driven. For instance, an actor is merely bringing someone else’s art to life (Not to downplay the importance of actors). In the example you gave with Spacey, do we then throw the baby out with the bathwater?
There are a lot more replies that I found intriguing but one thing I took from it was our need to have these conversations because we all carry diverse beliefs and train of thought and we do ourselves a disservice when we do not have an open space where we can share these ideas.
If you would love to watch the video essay that led to this conversation, please look below.
I have also attached the transcripts below.
Nas just dropped a new album NASIR, a few months after his ex-wife Kelis came out with her story. She accused him of allegedly abusing her whilst they were together; but if we are being honest, she spoke on how they were both violent towards each other.
Because of this, I have read numerous articles and tweets from people who say that they can’t listen to Nas anymore; as their loyalty lies with Kelis, and listening to him reminds them that he might be an abuser.
I mean looking at it in that way does make some kind of sense. It is very understandable that people won’t want to be associated with an art or artists they believe have done something immoral or hurtful. But does that mean that people who still listen to the artist who may have done something immoral supports their actions?
I highly doubt that.
The debate on if one can separate the art from the artist has been on for quite some time, and the answer is Yes! No! I mean! I guess it’s subjective but for me a few things come into play when making that decision.
Prime example would be R Kelly.
R Kelly has been accused of numerous sexual assault crimes; his ex-wife recently came on a show crying that he had also her abused whilst they were married. Spotify decided to remove him from their playlist but you can guess what happened- his streaming numbers rocketed. People are actively searching and listening to his music.
Of course! Many will say that these people are helping him stay afloat because they keep putting money in his pocket by streaming his music; and that’s a very valid response. But should we deny ourselves of good music because the artist is a shitty person? Because if I’m being completely honest, when I hear R Kelly I can’t wait to binge on trapped in the closet, but this doesn’t mean that I support his crimes now, does it?
Okay! People can excuse that! I am just listening online and enjoying the music but what about people who buy concert tickets for his shows? Are they worse?
I can’t be the judge of that, because I personally wouldn’t purchase tickets but that could be because I don’t like concerts. Maybe if I liked concerts, I would purchase the tickets because I wanted to enjoy his music by listening to him play live.
My point is because I believe R Kelly is a musical genius, whether he’s a Saint or a Devil that fact still stands. In this light I can separate art from artist.
Nevertheless R Kelly needs to pay for his crimes right! Especially as someone who fights for justice, one can label me hypocritical for not joining the boycotting of R Kelly in order to ensure he suffers for his actions, but the thing is- I don’t believe in boycotting. I understand that when the justice system fails to act accordingly, the people may decide to take laws into their own hands to ensure justice is served but I think in many cases it’s illogical and has no valid effect. It is just another form of jungle justice and we all know the complications that befall that system of justice. The onus of justice shouldn’t fall on the citizens; the people in charge should do due diligence and put this man in jail.
Let’s look at another artist, Vybz Kartel. Vybz is in jail for murder but this doesn’t seem to stop us from consuming his music, in fact we crave for more. Why is there a difference in how we deal with both artists? Could it be that the sexual/ domestic abuse in recent times carries more weight than murder?
I don’t think so! I believe certain people respond differently to a crime that is most relatable to them but as a society we carry perceptions of people and what we think are. So with Vybz, we see a gangster, someone rough and when you listen to his music, you can help but tap into the “hood” in you. So murder probably isn’t something so far-fetched, I will go as far as saying that it reinforces and cements his gangster status. So there’s not much of a moral dilemma with him but what this signifies is that we have objectified both the art and the artist.
Our inability to break the art from the artist in this case, dehumanizes the artist because we view them as something that exists to feeds our own desires. Another example would be when we say we can’t wait for favourite RnB singer to go through heartbreak because we want a fire album.
So if we see Vybz crime as normal because of the perception we have of him and the role he played; it’s very understandable when people find it difficult to separate Cosby from his art, as he played a father figure on TV, wrote many Children’s books and even was depicted as a role model for many young boys.
This cognitive dissonance leads to two things – Some people refuse to accept that he’s an abuser because they can’t break free from the perception they have had of him and some refuse to watch anything he’s on because they can’t separate the abuser from that role.
So imagine we hear Patience Ozokwor was indeed an evil step-mom in real life; people won’t bat an eyelid, views on her movies would double as people would be eager to watch her as they believe she’s indeed acting as herself. She won’t be castigated because her roles have made it easier for us to accept her reality.
And I believe this could be why the Nas situation didn’t bother me as much, because I had normalized toxicity as part of their life experiences.
But someone like Kevin Spacey, who was accused of sexual assault and taken off the show House Of Cards broke my heart because not only do I adore Kevin Spacey as an artist , I am also a big fan of the show. I know I might not be watching the show anymore but does that mean that I am loyal to Kelvin Spacey even with the sexual abuse accusation? I will be honest and say that I have a certain bias here.
Having read the ordeal that transpired between him and the man who he allegedly abused; it plays out as a sexual assault that happens in the grey areas. This is no way invalidates the pain that the victim went through but I find myself sympathizing with not just the victim but also the abuser. I understand that my bias originates from my own experiences as I have spoken openly about my own sexual abuse that happened in the grey areas in my teenage years. I realized that my abuser – then boyfriend was also just as naïve as I was and was acting out a certain sexual script that he believed was valid and I was doing the same. So in retrospect, I realized that both of us were victims.
This way of viewing things makes it easier for me to forgive and I find myself doing the same for Kelvin. But this doesn’t mean that others should or will do the same.
I believe that our actions always have consequences, so if the organization decides to take him off the Show because his actions are in conflict with their code of conduct, they have every right to do that. However, as individuals we still have the right to decide if we want to watch him or not.
But moving on! There’s an artist that I have personally struggled with. Eminem! The man is an amazing artist no doubt! But some of his lyrical contents throw me off; when you hear him say this – it’s pretty violent. But rarely do we speak against him; we tend to understand that he is just using his music to express himself. That he wouldn’t hurt anyone in real life.
So my question would be – If we can separate him from the art, why do we find it difficult to do the same for others?
I could say the same for people who dislike homosexuals but can’t stop listening to Sam Smith. They tell themselves that his personal life doesn’t affect them. They just enjoy his music but that’s not before they have to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes with that information.
I believe that our inability to separate the art from the artist gives the artist more power than the art. It burdens the art with baggage that in turn belittles the beauty of the art. And with the way people are coming out with different accusations against our favourites, it might be wise to learn to separate the art from the artist.