Can You Really Separate the Art From the Artist?

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Brianna Crites, Senior Editor

We’ve all heard the phrase “separating the art from the artist,” but what does that entail? In today’s digital age, it has become quite difficult to navigate the tumultuous trails that are enjoying the content of a creator without supporting the creator themself. When every like, comment, and click promotes them to some degree, the task of separating the art from the artist becomes even more difficult; not only is the art an extension of their being, but the consumption of said art almost always leads to the gain of the artist or creator. But there is no way to negate the fact that many enjoy the art these people create and face a real dilemma when their actions are exposed. So, are there ways to consume content by problematic creators without supporting them?

This first question we need to answer for ourselves is what makes a creator problematic. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, problematic can be defined as, “posing a problem; difficult to solve or decide.” This is the definition we normally think of when discussing the concept of a person being problematic, but it should be noted that there are other connotations available for this word, with this same dictionary also citing the definition, “ open to question or debate.” The word problematic is not inherently bad; in their times, people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gloria Steinem would have been considered problematic, as the concepts they were proposing (those of equality and acceptance) opened the doors to years of debates to come. This is not to say that every (or even most) artists and creators who you might deem as problematic are secretly some sort of revolutionary who will be celebrated in history for centuries to come. What is deemed as problematic will differ from person to person, and so will their concept of what that label actually means.

The introduction of social media and instant communication has certainly shifted the way in which one might have to avoid an artist or work of art that they deem as problematic. But this understanding of the obvious shift also poses the question of what separating the art from the artist would have looked like before the introduction of social media. A Vox article written by Constance Grady entitled, “What Do We Do When The Art We Love Was Created by a Monster?” goes into a bit more detail of this with the framing of Grady’s own time coming to terms with reconciling “aesthetic pleasure with moral disgust.” They go on to explain that separating the art from the artist is meant to be a natural approach to all art and media consumption. Since this idea gained popularity in the 20th century as a method for analyzing poetry, its definition has since shifted, as have people’s beliefs as to how we should approach art. Without the added factor of social media, one had the ability to approach any art consumption with this idea of separating the art from the artist in mind (much like you separate the cook from your meal when you go out to eat). But this is not as much of a possibility in a digital environment in which a single click equates to support through the art of the social media algorithm. 

Cancel cultures may very well play a role in the act of distinguishing the art as a separate entity from the artist as well. According to an  Insider article entitled, “How ‘Cancel Culture’ Quickly Became One of the Buzziest and Most Controversial Ideas on the Internet,“‘Cancel culture’ came into the collective consciousness around 2017, after the idea of ‘canceling’ celebrities for problematic actions or statements became popular.” While there is much debate regarding the effectiveness of cancel culture, it does bring into light the ideals of creators that some may not agree with. Living in an era of constant accountability places more responsibility on the consumer to actively work to not consume content that supports someone whose values do not align with their own. 

Tumwater senior Lillian Gunderson laid out her approach to such a complex subject. First and foremost, Gunderson very passionately advises everyone to understand their own morals before consuming new art and media. She feels that once you understand where your beliefs and limits lie, separating the art from the artist becomes a much easier task. When approaching the work of a new artist, Gunderson asks herself, “What kind of art, and what kind of artist?” She then elaborated that when she consumes new media like a book, usually has no knowledge of the artist, so she feels that she is separating the art from the artist right off the bat. However, when it comes to art like music, she feels that “there are some artists that should not be supported because of the way they view some things.” Adding on to this, she remarked that when you are aware that the views of an artist do not align with your own, it is then up to you, as the consumer, to decide if this is content you truly want to be consuming.

Quite possibly the hardest reality of all of this is that the content that an individual may not feel comfortable supporting may also be a source of comfort or joy in a person’s life. Those who grew up with the Harry Potter series may now be grappling with the fact that J.K. Rowling has recently been accused of using her social media to promote transphobic ideologies, but that much of the content in her books is rooted in racist and antisemitic stereotypes. Books may be some of the easiest content to consume without supporting the artist, with the availability of libraries and second-hand shopping, but content like movies, television, and music (especially of the newer variety) can be difficult to consume in our modern world without, in some way, supporting the artist. It really boils down to the consumers’ comfortability in supporting content they find problematic. If faced with the tough ethical decision of deciding whether or not to separate the art from the artist, the most logical step would be to do your research and decide whether or not you personally feel comfortable with the possible reality of your consumption supporting the creator.