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Separating Art from Artist Isn’t Ethical (or Possible)

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MSU chapter.

The idea of separating the art from the artist has become a heated debate in recent years. To separate the art from its creator is to divide the artist as a person – in particular, all of their actions or beliefs that may be considered immoral – from the art that they create in order for their work to stand alone, untainted by the artist’s perceived immorality. This would, hypothetically, allow for audiences to enjoy a work of art without feeling like they support the artist’s controversial opinions or behavior. 

People have heavily debated how ethical it is to practice this separation. There are many factors and implications that come with separating the art from the artist or allowing the two aspects to intertwine People are often divided on what to do or how to feel in each situation. While there are valid reasons for attempting to separate the art from the artist, I believe that doing so is not possible nor ethical, because supporting someone’s art is, in most cases, inseparably linked with supporting the artist as a human being.

Art and artist are forever bonded, as the artist cannot be removed as the person who created the art. It was their mind who wrote the words, their hands that sculpted the clay, and their voices that sang the lyrics. Therefore, an artist’s personal biases, actions, and controversies are always – subconsciously, at the very least – associated with their artwork, even if those things are not visibly represented in what they create (which is the case more often than not).

A study by PLOS One used aesthetic ratings and electrophysiological brain responses to measure participants’ reactions to artwork – some of which were associated with negative biographical knowledge about the artist and some that weren’t. They found that paintings associated with problematic or controversial artists were liked less and caused more intense negative emotions than the art that was associated with artists of neutral or good social backgrounds. 

The researchers concluded, “We appear to view an artwork in light of what we know about the artist, indicating that we do not spontaneously separate our perceptual-emotional experience of visual art from affective knowledge about the artist.” 

This goes to say that even if audiences consciously attempt to separate their knowledge of an artist from their enjoyment of the work, art and artist will remain linked in the back of people’s minds nonetheless. In this respect, the practice of separating the art from the artist is not psychologically possible. 

Artists are also tied to their artwork financially, as they make profit from the selling and/or use of their artwork. Streaming an album, buying a movie franchise t-shirt, or purchasing a novel from a bookstore directly supports the artists associated with those products. The profit that an artist makes from their work – both in direct sales and residuals or royalties – is free for them to use in any way that they see fit, which may include financially supporting organizations or individual people who share their problematic beliefs. In most cases, this financial support simply means that the artist is economically stable enough to keep creating and selling their art, which in turn makes them even more money. 

With wealth and success also comes fame, hence financial support of an artist upholds their social standing and influence as well. The more famous someone is, the more of a social following they have – which may include fans who are either unaware of the artist’s immorality or are liable to view those controversial opinions or actions as socially acceptable. 

“Celebrities are often held to a high standard when it comes to being unproblematic or inoffensive due to the sheer size of the platforms many of them hold,” explained an article  titled “Enough Is Enough: When We Abandon Problematic Artists” from The Pigeon Press. “The influence they have over others and the popularity they’ve gained makes people more susceptible to take their comments seriously.” 

Cancel culture – the practice of completely removing support for and rejecting someone from the spotlight after they say or do something considered offensive or immoral – is one way that society has attempted to prevent problematic people from remaining on pop culture pedestals. While this can be taken to extremes sometimes, social cancellation is an effective way to hold unethical people accountable for their words and actions. 

Separating the art from the artist, on the other hand, allows the artist to get away with their wrongdoings, keeping their fame and success intact. This treatment sets a precedent that unethical behaviors and beliefs are socially acceptable when the person in question creates art that people enjoy. With this precedent in place, there is no telling just how much artists will be able to get away with for the sake of art. 

In her research report, Amelia Aitken explains this phenomenon of artistic allowances, “The moniker creative genius seems to provide artists with a kind of protective shroud: because of the creative genius that lies within artists are allowed the ‘eccentricity, melancholy, madness, addiction, neurosis, reclusiveness, egotism, penury’ or any other flaw that is considered contributory to the creation of art.”

All this being said, I do think that there are some nuances to the topic. Theoretically, if someone can consume art by a problematic artist without financially or socially benefiting the artist, there would be no negative repercussions of that. Some common cases of this occur when an artist has already passed away or when consumers buy an artist’s work second hand. But to do this ethically, you must still recognize the harm the artist has done and take it into account when evaluating their art. Do not ignore the problematic aspects of the artist simply for the sake of liking the art.

This is ultimately a subject that requires everyone to use their own personal judgment, but if you want to be an ethical consumer of art, you would do well to keep this quote from The Fordham Ram in mind, “Free speech in America is a wonderful right, but that doesn’t mean that we as citizens have to let every harmful comment go by unchecked.” 

Separating the art from the artist may be tempting, especially when it comes to artwork that audiences have pre-existing emotional attachments to, but I urge you to consider the ethical implications of this practice before you bury yourself in it. It may allow you to hold on to some childhood nostalgia or favorite artwork, but hiding from the harsh reality that the creator of some art you like is a bad person is not an ethical solution to this problem. 

It is a commonly held belief that we must recognize and deal with our wrongdoings, and the wrongdoings of others, in order to better our society as a whole. So why would this way of thinking not apply when a famous singer makes a racist tweet or a popular romance author endorses a homophobic organization? Attempting the impossible – separating the art from the artist – is unethical in the sense that these allowances pose genuine harm and set a dangerous precedent of what is and is not against society’s morals.

Kendra Gilchrist is Senior Editor for Her Campus at MSU. She assists with and edits other members' articles, helps run the editing team, as well as writing her own articles. Gilchrist is a sophomore at Michigan State University studying journalism with a concentration in writing, reporting, and editing. Gilchrist was the Journalism and Copy Editor for her high school yearbook during her senior year and recently interned at her local newspaper. In her free time, Gilchrist likes to read, obsess over tv and movies, go to concerts, and drink way too much coffee.