The Problematic Fave - Can we Separate the Art From the Artist?

Illustration by Evey Joan

Artists: they produce or make beautiful, emotive, life-changing things -  or they are beautiful and life-changing themselves. But what about the artists that are known abusers, like Roman Polanski or R.Kelly? Or the ones who have made their art at the expense of their subjects, like Picasso? How about ones that abuse children, like Woody Allen or Gauguin? Perhaps most confusing of all, what do we do with the accused artists who openly talk about abuse and remorse as part of their work, like Junot Diaz? 

Society –myself included - has not yet figured out how to talk about and understand the incredible work of less incredible people. Is it still ok to love music, film, literature or art made by an individual if they have already ‘paid the price’ of a public apology, ostracism, jail time – or even death? Is it ‘acceptable’ to love Chris Brown’s music but make sure you don’t spend any of your money on his merchandise, concert tickets or music after the domestic abuse allegations came out? Or it is simply unfair to conflate the art with the artist? It is ok to privately like the work but keep it a secret in fear of being associated with the wrongdoings of the artist?

In our post-'Me Too’ world, where allegations against powerful people gain plenty of traction but rarely lead to criminal prosecution or survivor justice, we are still figuring out how to deal with abusers, as they continue to profit from the public long after their demonisation. Consider Picasso, who remains a globally acclaimed artist who still lands major solo exhibitions almost 50 years after his death. Yet Picasso is also widely known as a tyrannical, extremely misogynistic man, who was physically and emotionally abusive to the people closest to him – including the women he painted. 

The creative world seems to be more lenient towards male perpetrated abuse, when the price is brilliant, profitable art. Actually – to be frank -  even when the art is subpar at best - as long as it is making money. It is for this reason that Harvey Weinstein was able to openly assault and abuse women for several years before his exposure and public downfall. Allegations of R.Kelly’s predatory behaviour and alleged kidnapping of young girls has been circulating for the past three decades, yet federal procedures against him were only recently enacted. If the consumers of art are comfortable with cleanly separating the artist from their work, there is no reason for this culture of tolerance and enablement to change. It is a very convenient stance to take – you can enjoy that song, TV show or book completely guilty-free – after all, it’s not your fault your fave is problematic, is it? Not only do survivors of their abuse never have this option – it directly reinforces the message that the experiences of survivors are less valued than the pleasure of consuming art, and the money that can be made from that art. 

So where does that leave us and society, the collective consumer? It seems unrealistic to advocate for a complete boycott of the work of such iconic artists like Picasso or Michael Jackson – who would listen? And since a boycott cannot be applied retrospectively, it seems like an ultimately pointless pursuit – these artists have been immortalised in history and public memory. 

Personally, I am conflicted – it is much harder to enjoy art and entertainment with a feminist lens when you come to realise how much of it is exploitative or profoundly misogynistic. At the same time, I am one of the many who find Picasso’s line drawing style beautiful, and I even own a few prints inspired by his work. Granted, this was before I knew about his behaviour, but I still find joy and pleasure in my prints. I’m still conflicted over whether I should feel more guilt about this. To try and create some sort of balance, I advocate a critical approach. I think art, music, literature and film should always be looked at with the artist’s background in mind. I don’t believe that artists create completely separate from their own values and experiences, so every song, painting or book is to a degree a projection of the artist themselves. Therefore, art cannot be consumed in separation from the abuse and trauma the artist is responsible for; it must become part of their legacy. Any industry profiting from their work posthumously must openly acknowledge this – time and time again. Every individual benefitting must force themselves to confront this uncomfortable pairing – time and time again. It is a privilege to have the time and the resources to consume art, and so as consumers we must bear the responsibility of consuming with the full discomfort and knowledge of the creator’s unacceptable behaviour.

The above applies only to posthumous work – I personally cannot advocate for anything other than the complete boycott of artists whose transgressions are public and who continue to profit without repercussions – such as R. Kelly or Chris Brown. 

Whatever your own opinion is on this subject, I ask that you keep in mind the words of Roxanne Gay:

“We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius. In truth, we should have learnt this lesson long ago, but we have a cultural fascination with creative and powerful men…who behave badly.”

Written by Monika Radojevic