We Should No Longer Separate the Art from the Artist 


Illustration by Addie Winter

By Addie Winter

“I’m just separating the art from the artist,” is a phrase usually heard in defense of criticism of a certain artist that has fallen under the scrutiny of the public eye. But is this concept constructive—or possible? Consumers need to re-address why they take issue with an artist’s behavior, and if their artwork necessarily reinforces said behavior. Engaging critically with art, and considering context, eliminates the need to separate the art from the artist. 

When consuming a work of art made by an artist you disagree with, it’s important to analyze the era they existed in. Shakespearean and literary historian Stephen Greenblatt’s literary theory of New Historicism presents a good argument for interacting with problematic artists. His theory contends that artists are a product of their time, he isn’t absolving them, rather he claims that art exists within societal confines—not just the artist’s mind. From a literary perspective, when applying Greenblatt’s theory to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, one might consider the novel’s lack of objective morals to be influenced by the mid-century postmodernist literary movement. Utilizing this framework guides us to a more complex and high-brow understanding. Engaging critically with ideas and concepts you disagree with does not equal endorsement, rather it allows us to fundamentally understand how to not make the same mistakes. 

We need to avoid presentism: the application of modern concepts and perspectives to historical works and people—and instead, bear in mind the historical and cultural contexts in works of art. This is obviously easier said than done. 

For instance, the “separating the art from the artist” argument is often applied to J.K. Rowling, as her transphobic beliefs weren’t revealed until over a decade after the first book’s release. However, her transphobic beliefs are reflected in the Harry Potter series. The character of Rita Skeeter, introduced in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is described with characteristics that imply that she is trans. Additionally, Rowling contributes to the negative stereotyping of H.I.V./AIDs, admitting that the werewolves were a metaphor for the crisis, then depicting them as either child predators (Fenrir Greyback) or oppressed (Remus Lupin). 

We could ignore these instances of transphobia and homophobia, or we could go deeper, questioning why Rowling holds these beliefs and why she still thinks it’s acceptable to share them. To an extent, Rowling is a product of her environment, her opinions are shaped by her experience growing up as a cis white woman in the U.K. As a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) she has further surrounded herself with people that confirm her beliefs. She should undeniably still receive criticism for these problematic themes and opinions, but it is ineffective to cast the whole series aside, thus ignoring the reasons why society still supports people like her. 

When asked about the adverse public response to Rowling’s comments, Adrienne Maree Brown, author of We Will Not Cancel Us  claims there’s a difference between a call-out vs. call-in, “we pull ourselves into more interdependence, relationality, and accountability.”

By getting to the source of our frustration, we can then realize why we don’t agree with that artist and thus no longer want to engage with their work entirely, or critically analyze it while consuming the artist’s content. We need to examine our relationship with these artists to help differentiate between virtue signaling and honest issues with them. 

Additionally, scholar Amy Hungerford argues that people must think critically about the work they consume to engage with it better.

 “One must decide, without reading a work, whether it is worth the time to read it or not … a  decision not to read must be defended, and received, [based on] this different standard of evidence.”  

I personally refuse to watch Woody Allen’s films, as I am so disturbed by his actions that I don’t want to see him on screen after learning of his history of sexual abuse. I cannot separate him from his art, and refuse to attempt to. However, I still recognize his film’s impact on the film industry and Hollywood altogether. I’ll still watch movies that Harvey Weinstein produced. It is reasonable to consider whose work of art you want to engage with, but it’s more important to interrogate why you’re engaging with it. 

For example, many people have a deep personal connection to Kanye’s music. It was only until his recent anti-Semitic and anti-black comments and threats that people started to reevaluate their relationship with his art. My suggestion is that those people continue to simultaneously acknowledge the effect that his music has had on their life, as well as how his behavior shapes his music. 

People shouldn’t be deprived of things they cherish and value because the creator was offensive and awful. Situations differ depending on when the artist entered one’s life, and if that artist is currently successful and prominent in our society. It’s also productive to evaluate why Kanye is still thriving and why he is still speaking out about these subjects, despite receiving extreme backlash. Ultimately, separating the art from the artist is possible, but nowhere near as worthwhile as evaluating the source of these artists’ controversial views. Getting to the origin and assessing what environmental factors foster such vicious and corrupt people will help us thus work to create a superior inclusive society, solving these issues.