Separating the artist from the art: is it really possible?


Ava Dreyer

Artists who have sparked controversy.

Ava Dreyer, Editor-in-chief

With “cancel culture” being as prominent as it is today, it is easy for questionable behavior public figures have engaged in to change the way people view them. While I don’t completely agree with cancel culture because it isn’t always fair to define a person by one mistake, I think canceling problematic celebrities can sometimes be necessary. The correct response is dependent on many details like what the person actually did, and how they reacted to their mistakes being made public. It is so important that we move away from blindy canceling someone, and instead try to make their mistakes into lessons.

   Canceling a public figure has become so normalized that there is no room for nuance, for case-by-case evaluation. I think that if the artist has done something so problematic, it can be necessary to stop supporting them and to take  away their platform, but again, it is necessary for there to be differences in how we react based on each unique situation. 

   “When the artist’s art is a manifestation of the things that they can be canceled for, that’s different than if the artist has done other things that have nothing to do with their art,” English teacher Matthew Henry said. 

   I agree with Henry because if the artist is not actively promoting their problematic actions or opinions, it is easier to make a distinction between the two. However, if the art has a crossover with the artist’s problems, it’s virtually impossible to separate them. For example, comedian Bill Cosby has been accused by multiple women of sexual predation like groping, sexual assault, and rape. He has mentioned these things in some comedy skits, so he is using his platform to perpetuate unhealthy views of women. Cosby has also continued to deny these claims, showing that he has not learned from his mistakes. Therefore, his cancellation seems appropriate given his reported behavior.

   This controversy of artist versus art has arisen at WHS for students who read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in English class given that the author, Sherman Alexie, has been accused of sexually harrassing women.

   “I think his perspective on being indigenous is still viable to a degree,” junior Caroline Curley said. “[However], I don’t think he should be put on a pedestal or be someone who represents an entire community.”

   While Alexie’s problematic past should not be ignored, his writings do not have a crossover with his sexual harrasment allegations, so I think there is a good amount of separation between the two. Alexie’s books also give representation to Native Americans, which is important because there are not many books taught at WHS that shine a light on this community. Alexie also admitted his past mistakes and said that some of the women were telling the truth, which shows he has recognized his problems.

   However, it is essential to note that if you allow yourself to separate the artist from their art and continue to support their work, you are sustaining their platform. It is crucial to understand that giving problematic people a platform can affect how others are influenced. 

   “I do not feel like we should be buying more of his books and supporting him financially when there are plenty of other excellent Indigenous authors that we can add to the curriculum,” English teacher Claire Schomp said. “Next year, my goal is to make this book a part of our choice unit, so students don’t have to read it if they don’t want to.”

  I still go back and forth with myself as to where I draw the line between occasionally listening to or reading someone’s art, and cutting it off completely. For example, I enjoyed listening to country singer Morgan Wallen’s music, but a video surfaced of him saying the N-word. Although Wallen’s music doesn’t necessarily contain racist ideas, listening to it continues to give him a platform, earn money, and impact people around the world. When a Morgan Wallen song comes on, it is hard to truly enjoy it because my first thought is the white ignorance and racism he holds. So in this case, Morgan Wallen did something so severely wrong that it is difficult to separate him from his music even if there is no direct crossover. Similar things can be said about other music artists like Chris Brown, who in 2009 hit his then-girlfriend Rihanna.

   “When a Chris Brown song comes on, I still think about what he did and I don’t make it a frequent thing to listen,” Curley said.

   However, some people might say that they are able to look past controversies because the art has impacted them in a way that they are not going to give up. People pick and choose when they feel they can separate the artist from their art. 

   Personally, as a Taylor Swift fan and feminist, I rarely listen to Kanye West’s music because of the sexist things he has said in the past, the way he treated Taylor Swift at the VMAs in 2009, and the song he released that took credit for her fame in 2016. Nevertheless, some people are able to look past this.

   “Although Kanye’s actions outside his music have been less than admirable, the joy he brings me through his music compels me to ignore these controversies,” sophomore Matthias Sarnblad said. 

   I tend not to listen to Kanye because I’m mindful of the fact that by doing so I’m supporting his brand. However, this is not the case for all artists because sometimes I do still believe that there is value in appreciating their art, like Alexie. Canceling someone should be more thoughtful, rather than just an immediate response to scandal. Once the full situation is understood, we can then evaluate whether to stop supporting them.