Separating art and artist

Photo by Blake Israel

The 2022 Oscars were, for lack of a better word, surprising. The reverberations of the shock could be felt in the resurgence of a question that has plagued artists, critics and audiences alike for as long as art has been culturally relevant: can we separate art from the artists? 

The question of the boundaries between an artist and their work is a hotly contested topic as fans rush to the defense of some of their favorite artists and works. The interpretation of art is by definition deeply personal, which definitely contributes to the hotly contested nature of the boundaries between an artist and their work. Because of the meaningful connections we form with art, oftentimes the cancellation of artists leaves us feeling cognitive dissonance as we struggle to reconcile the love of a work with a distaste for its creator.

This commonly leaves audiences in an uncomfortable position where they are unable to separate works, such as Harry Potter, from treasured memories or their identity, but also can feel guilt when confronted with past actions or ideologies of the artist. People deal with this in very different ways. Some people choose not to financially support these franchises while others choose to completely dissociate the artist from their work. Many in the groups affected by the behavior of artists even choose to reclaim the media by creating their own works. For example, drama tropes such as StarKids have created comprehensive creations such as A Very Potter Musical that actually address the many issues people have pointed out with J.K. Rowling’s work.

The distinction between the art and artist is a line that is made even more blurry by the difficulty of defining what even constitutes behavior that is problematic enough to mar someone’s work. 

The line between problematic and unforgivable is incredibly subjective as people are scorned by the public for a range of behaviors from racist remarks to literal crimes. Furthermore, the cultural significance of works of criminally problematic authors makes it even more difficult to conscientiously consume media. For example, the contribution of major literary figures like Ernest Hemingway is unquestionable, but it is irresponsible to simply recognize him for his literary merit without also acknowledging the harm he has caused. Many of his works, subtextually or directly, contain hateful rhetoric, which may have been the norm for the time, but are very controversial now.

As major figures in the art world, both past and present, are called into question more frequently, many point to concerns that “cancel culture” is getting out of hand. While the instantaneous nature of the internet has allowed for the cancellation of artists to be sometimes too hasty, canceling remains the strongest tool in the hands of audiences in deciding who has a public platform. 

In a world, where casting agents, academy institutions, and production companies hold nearly all the power in deeming what is relevant and funded, audiences are often left without a choice in what media is being created. Canceling someone remains one of the only ways we, as an audience, can hold someone accountable. As alleged pedophiles and abusers continue to receive awards and populate the big screen, cancel culture — while sometimes problematic in itself — remains one of the few barriers separating the art and artist. 

The identity of an artist versus the merit of their work is as complicated as it is relevant. At the end of the day, it is the choice of an individual on how they want to view these lines. We urge you to make your own choice but remember that every one of your actions or inactions carries ramifications. No one can force you to support an artist, but as times change and art remains at the center of culture, simply choosing to ignore the actions of an artist outside of their work is a regression.