Should We Separate Art from the Artist?

Photo from Artland Magazine

What do you do when you learn that your favorite artist is a monster? When they have committed an act that is past the point of no return? Do you reject the art they created with the artist? It is a question that lies at the heart of both pop culture and high art critique. This is inherently a personal decision, and as such it will be up to you to decide what your opinion on the debate is, but here are some things you should consider that can help you navigate this complex problem.

There is Never a Clear Right or Wrong Answer

When it comes to deciding if it is ever actually okay to separate an artist from their art, it is usually best to decide your answer case-by-case rather than one definitive choice that you stick with forever. Some feel that it is possible to separate the art from the artist as long as the art does not convey the artist’s problematic character or beliefs. Others say that art is too difficult to consume once you are no longer ignorant of the artist’s doings. But, a third opinion is that the most important thing you can do is recognize the artist’s faults and respect that others may be offended by their work. This is clearly no black-or-white issue and can be difficult to delegate. So, it is most important to do what feels right for you.

Media, Movies and Music: Can You Really Turn a Blind Eye?

Art is everywhere. It is one of the universal languages of the world. That is why it is so heartbreaking when, recently, it seems like every day we are faced with another one of our favorite artists becoming problematic or unearthing their true selves which turns out to be someone hateful or sometimes even dangerous.

Photo from

This past October, singer Rex Orange County (whose real name is Alex O’Conner) was charged with six counts of sexual assault. Not much is known about the case other than that he denies the accusations and his provisional trial date is set for Jan. 3rd. Now, O’Connor’s situation is definitely not an isolated instance within the music industry, especially with other male artists. Singers like R. Kelly and Chris Brown are two prominent examples of this and even though all three artist’s crimes vary in severity, the debate is still the same: Can you really separate them from their music? For a lot of us, Rex Orange County’s case might hit pretty close to home. After being fans and avid listeners of his music for so long, it is extremely hard to ignore what he has done if his music were to come on shuffle. Especially because of the soft, indie-boy aesthetic he so often portrayed. This just goes to show that you never really know who these artists are as people behind their music and personas.

Also, it can be difficult to discern when boycotting against certain art and artists because many times, art is collaborative. Sadly, in most cases, one bad apple spoils the bunch. So even though not every artist on a piece of work is at fault, they often are guilty by association. Harvey Weinstein is an example of this because many of his close associates and colleagues would ignore his crimes or even defend him. And watching his movies, even if you acknowledge that you do not directly support him, actually indirectly support him because he and his company still make a profit off of that.

The High Art World

Many artists in the classic or “high art” world are avidly against ever separating the art from the artist because their art is seen as an extension of themselves. Their art is who they are and vice versa — it is impossible to see the relationship as anything but symbiotic.

Photo from TIME Magazine

For example, Salvador Dali is a renowned artist. But what many people don’t know is that he was a pretty deplorable human being. He would abuse his wife, participate in grotesque sexual practices, supported Hitler and was just an all-around strange man. A few of his paintings actually feature small portraits of Hitler hidden within them. The image above is a surrealist photo by Phillipe Halsman. Take note of the cats that are suspended in the air. Before the cats were even brought into the picture, it is actually documented that Dali suggested blowing up a duck with dynamite for the photo instead. But, unlike the chair or canvas that is held up by assistants, those cats were thrown by hand every single time, for every single take to capture the perfect shot.

The Takeaway

It is difficult enough to navigate the world as it is, let alone navigate the art world in a society that places such high value on art. As long as you are doing what feels right to you, and not directly or indirectly supporting an artist who is harmful, that is pretty much all anyone can ask of you. Art history is people’s history and one day, this is all going to be taught to younger generations. And who knows, maybe by then, we will have figured out a definitive answer for if we should ever separate the art from the artist.

Let us know your thought on artists and their art @VALLEYmag on Twitter and Instagram.


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