Separating art from the artist: is it possible?


Sofia Kim , Staff Writer

Kanye West. Michael Jackson. Paul Gauguin. These are just a few names that come to mind around the recent media debate over whether or not it is possible to separate the art from the artist. While some can enjoy art from artists whose actions they disagree with, others cannot experience art without feeling guilt.

The question heavily depends on how much an artist’s actions influence their work, Michelle Orloff (11) said. For example, West’s music does not directly derive from his problematic actions, making it possible to separate his music from his persona, she said. “If someone is talented, you should respect their talent and appreciate their work. But you should also be aware that you’re subscribing to someone who has done specific things and not be blind towards it,” she said. 

It is possible to separate the art from the artist as long as the viewer has an objective mindset, Gabe Jaffe (11) said. “What does the art physically look like when it is disconnected from the artist?” he said. Depending on the person and how they experience art, it is possible to achieve a complete separation of art and artist, he said.

Major artists have people watching their every move, so they are vulnerable to cancel culture, or a mass withdrawal of support because of a socially unacceptable action. Usually, this means removing the public figure’s platform and abandoning support for their work. But when artists have heavily influenced a particular field, can people forget their work? Take Michael Jackson, “King of Pop,” who has repeated sexual abuse allegations. While many artists today look up to him, is it ethical to idolize someone with a problematic past?

While some artists might set a bad example, people cannot ignore the influence some artists have on their industry, Pietro Arcoria (10) said. “Oftentimes, people who are really talented and significantly impact our culture have some sort of faults because they are human,” he said. Even without supporting the artist, people should not try to erase their impact. 

Based on the degree of extremity, it is possible to respect someone’s work while still disagreeing with their views, Naomi Gelfer (11) said. “When someone creates art I can’t create, I can respect and enjoy their work without sympathizing with their actions.” Gelfer has been a fan of comedian John Mulaney for several years and while she does not condone some of his actions, such as being unfaithful to his wife, she still appreciates his jokes, she said.

For others, separation between an artist and their art is unimaginable. Brianna Wells (10) finds it impossible to completely bifurcate an artist’s political views from their work because they profit from consumer attention, she said. J.K. Rowling wrote the best-selling series of all time, “Harry Potter,” but also sent a series of transphobic tweets and has been accused of cultural appropriation. “Every time you buy a “Harry Potter book, you are supporting J.K. Rowling and her problematic views,” Wells said. “When you listen to Kanye’s songs, the economic support is still going towards him. In that sense, there is no way to enjoy their art without supporting their actions.”

When an artist crosses the line into hate speech and discrimination, it becomes impossible to support an artist without connecting it to their hatred — depending on how political the artwork is, Malcolm Furman (12) said. “J.K. Rowling writes in a fictional world that is disconnected from our society and today’s political climate. However, Kanye writes about his own experiences and his perceptions of the world which is tainted by hate,” he said.

With today’s technology, we know more about modern artists’ personal lives than we did of the artists from years ago, visual arts teacher Ron Logan, said. “When you know people in a deeper way, you understand their work differently.” Because he studies art that is centuries old, Logan recognizes that artists who lived during culturally different times had a different standard of what was acceptable, he said. “We might think what we’re doing now is okay but no one knows how people will think of it 500 years in the future.”

Visual Arts Department Chair Dr. Anna Hetherington agrees that time can alter what is deemed culturally acceptable. Artists who create in the present have immediate consequences on the way people perceive our culture, she said. “But if Vincent van Gogh made a painting with a certain context 150 years ago, the cultural consequences are not the same.”

There are nuances to the debate, and each case is different depending on the art’s purpose and context, Hetherington said. While Paul Gauguin, a French artist, had a highly problematic biography, many historians believe his art was historically significant enough to continue teaching, she said. “However, others feel his biography is so abhorrent that they won’t teach him.” 

Hetherington also emphasizes that the context behind art is always significant. Otto Dix, a German painter during World War I, created works influenced by the brutality of war. Without experiencing the war, his art would be significantly different, she said. “What’s crucial is that works of art impact both responses to culture and shape it, and artists are not just mere illustrators of their time,” she said. This idea shows the relationship between the art and the artist is more complicated than simply a person creating art.  

While a seemingly simple question, there is no single correct answer. There are many factors that play into creating artwork, including the context of the art, the circumstances around which it was made, and how much the artist’s views influence its creation. A problematic person could one day inspire someone else to create their own art. Additionally, each individual views art differently, as some can simply enjoy the art’s physical aspects, while others cannot experience the art without connecting it back to the artist. Although every individual has faults, do we support their impact in the industry out of pleasure, or is it unethical to keep someone in power who has problematic influences?