Should We Separate the Art From the Artist?


Julia Rotiroti, Contributing Writer

This is a million-dollar question (literally – in some cases, the canceling of an artist’s career can lead to millions of dollars in losses!). From the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson to Academy Award winner Woody Allen, the list of disgraced artists appears endless. It is a true moral dilemma, though, as to whether or not their art should be celebrated and enjoyed, or if their works should suffer the same level of disgrace as the artists themselves.. 

Take Michael Jackson: a musical god, winner of thirteen Grammy Awards, whose songs are streamed roughly 16 million times per week. His talents seem unmatched. With a whopping 750 million records sold worldwide, he could easily be one of the most celebrated pop artists of all time.

Yet, in 1993, two young boys, who had been working alongside Jackson, alleged that Jackson had sexually abused them. The allegations were downplayed by the media, and the trial was acquitted despite many credible testimonies and evidence of pedophilia. Jackson’s own sister admitted, “Michael is my brother.  But I cannot, and I will not be a silent collaborator of his crimes against small, innocent children” (MTV). 

Although there seemed to be plenty of evidence, many of Jackson’s fans downplayed the possibility of abuse. The evidence behind the allegations was prevalent, but this did not prevent the ignorant speculation of false claims according to NPR.

A decade after his death, director Dan Reed released Finding Neverland, a docuseries highlighting Jackson’s abuse. This was monumental for the victims, as their stories were finally being acknowledged and the shadow of Jackson’s fame could no longer conceal the facts and events from these boys’ childhoods. 

Abuse victim James Safechuck stated, “People think [Jackson’s] music is great, so he’s great…to think that that person is doing the worst possible things to kids it’s tough for people to wrap their heads around.”

Jackson, of course, is not alone in this. Celebrities like Harvey Weinstien, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen had the support of all of Hollywood, so when allegations surfaced, their multimillion dollar productions and production companies suffered. Obviously, these criminals have had their names rightfully tarnished, but is it necessary to disregard all of their work? 

In situations where we are forced to sacrifice devotion to “icons,” accountability is crucial. Hastings High School chorus teacher, John Riss, noted, “I think it sends a really terrible message to the victims if we look the other way in certain circumstances.” 

Actor Colman Domingo, in an interview with the New York Times , suggested, “These are very sensitive situations that reflect what has been building up in our industry for years […] I think it’s important for us to take a breath, assess and not respond impulsively.” 

Art as a whole is something that resonates distinctively for every person. The idea of  “cancelling” art based on an artist’s crimes or action can create its own problems. English teacher Mr. Scotch noted, “As a teacher, remembering that if you remove that person, or even remove that text, where is our foundation for discussion?” 

There is an immense amount of growth we can undertake by acknowledging the flaws of artists, even possibly connecting them to the art itself. However, If we isolate the artist and the art, this can blind us from the inevitable idea that art, even by people we may not like, can pull so many emotions out of us, depending on our interpretation of it. 

And what do we do about fans who, blindsided by the facts, want to only talk about these artists in the light they previously saw them in?

Music teacher Mr. Day suggests “Transparency. It’s good to know the context [of the art we study]. We shouldn’t shy away from speaking the truth about [artists]. I think that listening to that music now is more complicated because you know of the likely history, or the dark side, behind Michael Jackson’s life. But that music is so associated with joyfulness, so for me to personally listen to it and enjoy it I still have to acknowledge the truth of the matter too. […] I’m saying it’s okay to enjoy the art as long as we acknowledge where it came from.” 

This kind of approach to art takes experience and reflection and can be a hard issue to wrap one’s head around. Art has immense value and a lot of that value can be lost when an artist is isolated for what they have done.  Mr. Scotch, thinking about the author Sherman Alexie and the recent allegations against him for sexual misconduct, reminisces about when his daughter read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “She said to me it was the first time in her life she understood what the Native American perspective was. But [Sherman Alexie] has said a number of things that are terrible. But if he has said something terrible in one way but created something great in another way and she is focusing on the great qualities, do I think it is fair to cancel out those great things? No. There is tremendous validity in that.” 

This instance is an example of respecting the integrity, worth, and intent of the art itself instead of discounting it based on the author’s personal life. 

Mr. Scotch mentions that “We at the school encounter a book…or a piece of art where the artist is problematic. Is it appropriate for us to discuss it and discuss those qualities? I would say yes, it is very important because you can explore the art as the piece of art and remove the person. If you bring the person in, you can have that larger discussion on the impact of that person on culture and whether or not the actions and beliefs of that person impact whatever it is we are looking at. Can we look at it suddenly in a new way as a result? It’s really learning at that point.” Observing the art, with or without recognizing the artist’s controversy, can fuel conversations and add a deeper layer to art that may have been otherwise disregarded. 

Mr. Day seconds Mr. Scotch’s opinion, noting, “Deep down, I think the art can stand for itself.”

However, he also added, “It’s a lesson, too. Don’t hold people on pedestals—artists, politicians, anybody. People are flawed and that’s okay to accept their flaws. Some people are flawed to a dangerous degree and some to a minor degree, but we’re all flawed. Don’t expect your artist to be this pure medium for some kind of inspiration. Instead, in these cases, it’s like ‘That was just a flawed person creating what they came up with and we can make of it what we want.’ There is a layer of toxicity that comes with this form of cancel culture that seems ethically acceptable, but people do not realize that there is also toxicity in accounting for some peoples’ flaws when everybody is in some way morally flawed, whether that is to a minor or major extent. Morals cannot completely invalidate expression, like one as powerful as art. It can alternatively influence the meeting, but there is still validity in the way the art makes one feel regardless.” 

Lastly, there is the question about who benefits from the material gains of art. Streaming, enjoying, and supporting the products of these creators when they are alive directly supports the artist themselves. But should an artist’s art live in its own place, and have its own boundaries? 

If art resonates with someone, they should feel as though they can appreciate it to any extent they like, depending on their thoughts on the artist. This is a slippery slope, as it brings in circumstantial ethical situations, but art in itself truly is the rawest form of expression and should be at least acknowledged, if not always appreciated.