Separating the Art from the Artist

In the age of information and instant communication, we get to see the sides of celebrities they may not want us to see. Celebrities are people, and in that way, they are just as fallible as the average Joe. So when their unpopular beliefs or inappropriate behaviors are exposed to the public, people take notice. Many wonder: is it possible to enjoy an artist’s work once you know that they may be terrible people?

You may have heard the term “cancel culture” being thrown around recently. Miriam Webster defines the verb “canceled” as, “to withdraw one’s support for (someone, such as a celebrity, or something, such as a company) publicly and especially on social media.” 

Cancellation almost always has to do with people in the pop culture spotlight, so there is not much to worry about as an average high schooler. Practicing accountability for celebrities on paper sounds like a great idea after decades of celebrities abusing their power; individuals like Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly come to mind as public figures whose actions most definitely deserved their loss of support, as both of them were convicted for incredibly repugnant crimes.

Celebrities who are usually “canceled,” or just generally those whose reputations are tarnished, receive backlash in the form of boycotts, with personalities like Joe Rogan and Ellen DeGeneres as shining examples. Imagine you are listening to an old playlist, and a song by R. Kelly starts playing. You might feel a bit odd, maybe even grossed knowing their history. It is pretty reasonable to not enjoy listening to music by a convicted child abuser. The question then becomes: when can you no longer separate the artist from the art?

Masuk is home to many people who will try to avoid supporting certain celebrities whom they view in a negative light. Brian Humpal, a history teacher here at Masuk, might consider himself among this group of people.

“I am a big fan of the Cleveland Browns. I am not a fan of the behavior of their current quarterback,” Humpal said. Deshaun Watson, the current quarterback, has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women. Of course this has led to a major amount of backlash.

“I will not buy his jersey or that sort of thing. I won’t support him as an individual.” Humpal continued. His reprehension makes sense due to the severity and the number of accusations levied against Watson. But he is still able to support the team as a whole as he views them as a separate entity.

“The team was there before he was there. And the team will be there after he is gone,” finished Humpal. In good conscience, however, he is unable to back Watson even though he is the quarterback of his favorite team.

Another more recent example of a public figure ruining their image is the new controversies surrounding Kanye West, now known as “Ye”. West has never been opposed to media controversy, but recent events show a spiraling pattern of harmful behavior. Many of West’s outlandish actions can be attributed to his battle with mental health, as he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016. But as his public image is repeatedly diminished by constant media stunts and hateful ideology, many believe that West has gone too far.

West’s public actions took a disturbing turn following his divorce from his wife of six years, Kim Kardashian. It was reported in January 2021 that West and Kardashian were considering divorce, with Kardashian filing shortly after in February. Following their divorce, Kardashian started a public relationship with actor and comedian Pete Davidson.

The relationship bothered West greatly, which led him to go on a social media tirade. He bestowed the nickname “Skete” on Davidson and started posting many inflammatory comments directed towards Davidson on his public Instagram. These posts grew to the point of inciting public harassment.

This was not the end of West’s bizarre online behavior. His actions took an even darker turn in October 2022, when he started posting antisemitic tweets on Twitter and Instagram. As well as expressing many radical conservative opinions on abortion and Black Lives Matter-related issues, his objectionable comments against Jewish people escalated even further, culminating with an interview on far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ talk show.

“I like Hitler,” West said, fully doubling down on his bigoted comments and solidifying his reputation and legacy as permanently tarnished, if not ruined. “Every human being has something of value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler.” also said during the now infamous interview. 

So with all this said and done, can you, with good conscience, continue to enjoy the music created by West?  Some have the mindset of mentally detaching an artist’s work from its creator. The art from the artist. Just because the creator of a piece of media may not be the best person does not mean that you cannot enjoy their work.

“His music has meant so much to me. Over lots of periods of time, his music has helped me in so many ways. Sometimes I go back to it but recently I’ve kind of been a little bit on edge,” said Masuk senior Jonah Schwartz, who at one point in time considered West their favorite musical artist of all time.

“I mean, I just like his music ’cause it’s good to listen to. I don’t really care who he is as a person,” said Masuk sophomore and West fan Cole Rigby. When asked if he is able to separate West from his music Rigby replied, “Yeah exactly, exactly. For sure.”

Another struggle to separate an artist and their art can be found in the controversy surrounding J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series.

Although originally seen as an inspiring philanthropist and women’s rights activist for much of her career, in recent years she has received much hate and condemnation for her views on transgender rights and for her writing, which has been criticized for alleged racist undertones.

“It [separating the art from the artist] is very difficult. I have not reread any Harry Potter in a very very long time. And not watched a Harry Potter movie in a couple years,” said Masuk sophomore Michael Blake. Being a fan of Harry Potter from a young age, he’s struggled with the ethics behind potentially supporting someone whose views he finds harmful.

Another angle to consider when discussing these controversies is those who work alongside the artist.

“You need to remember here, Kanye isn’t the only one who works on his music. There are lots of producers, there are lots of artists making features, there are lots of people that go into songs and albums that also get compensated when you listen to them,”  said Schwartz when reasoning why it may be okay to continue to listen to West’s music.

Schwartz concluded with, “I think it’s personally unfair to stop listening to an artist and have all those other people be affected by that.” 

Humpal has a similar rationale to Schwartz when it comes to West’s music and the separation of art.

“It’s not my place to tell people how to feel. If they can separate the two, the person from their art, then that’s up to each individual person,” said Humpal in response to the proposed moral question.

It seems like a daily occurrence these days to learn that a new musician, actor, or author you admire has been exposed for some objectionable action or belief. And it is a common struggle for the general public and Masuk students alike to decide whether or not it is okay to still support the artist financially or still consume their content. However, both sides of the argument can agree that it is extremely difficult to navigate the ethical dilemmas behind separating art from its artist.

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