With actors, entertainers, musicians and other artists under scrutiny for misconduct, addressing the age-old question—should we separate the art from the artist—has become increasingly relevant. From sexual assault to inappropriate and hateful behavior, do the problematic actions of these artists mean we can no longer appreciate their art?
Kanye West tweeted his support for President Donald Trump on April 25, prompting disappointment and backlash from many non-Trump supporters. “The mob can’t make me not love him,” West stated in his tweet. “We are both dragon energy.”
“The mob can’t make me not love him,” West stated in his tweet. “We are both dragon energy.”
This is not the first time West has stirred up controversy, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Controversial celebrity behavior feels all too familiar these days with the blitz of sexual abuse allegations against artists such as Woody Allen and Louis C.K.
Allen’s neurotic New York love letter Manhattan is one of my favorite films of all time. I’ve seen every episode of C.K.’s FX dramedy series Louie. It wouldn’t be uncommon to find me attempting—and failing—to rap along to West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album in its entirety in the shower, exhausting my vocal chords and the hot water supply. Just as these artists’ works do not excuse their troubling behaviors, their behaviors do not diminish the quality of their works.
In his essay “My Woody Allen Problem,” The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott says that although Allen’s behaviors may be odious, his works cannot be scrubbed from the artistic canon or collective societal consciousness because they are “a part of the common artistic record, which is another way of saying that they inform the memories and experiences of a great many people.”
Some people argue that appreciating the work of individuals who demonstrate problematic behavior enables and encourages those behaviors, but if we were to boycott the creative output of every artist who has ever been a predatory creep in their private life, we would be doing the art world a disservice.
Many artistic masters have behaved in socially unacceptable—and often downright immoral—ways. Pablo Picasso notoriously mistreated women. Influential Baroque painter Caravaggio had a reputation as a violent brawler and once killed a man. Edgar Allan Poe married his 13-year-old cousin. But should controversial artists’ works be ripped from library shelves, gallery walls and the modern vernacular? Should their works be burned in dumpster fires along with their cultural importance? I think not.
Some agree with French philosopher Roland Barthes’ argument that consideration of an author’s morality is an essential element of critiquing their works. Moral questions are unavoidable in artistic critique, but audiences should consider the moral questions raised by the piece itself when evaluating a work, rather than by the outside behavior—moral or immoral—of its creator.
“Do I judge the film based off the filmmaker’s personal actions? No,” film critic Candice Frederick told IndieWire. “Do I judge the filmmaker outside the film? Absolutely.”
Works of art, from novels to movies to paintings, can depict shocking events and unsettling themes because they are reflections of society but not necessarily real. While those in the public eye should be held fully accountable for their actions, lines should not be blurred between celebrities’ real lives and their bodies of work. Killing works of art is neither appropriate nor adequate punishment for artists’ crimes; punishments should be dealt with in the realm of reality, not of art. Once an artwork is created and unleashed into the world, it becomes its own separate entity.
“The artist as a person should certainly be subject to rebuke, censure or penalty for unacceptable decisions in the social realm,” feminist scholar Camille Paglia told The New York Times. “But art, even when it addresses political issues, occupies an abstract realm beyond society.”