how do we separate art from the artist?

So you love their music- but then you find out that their political views don’t align with your own. There’s some morally questionable content surrounding them.

The first thing you might have done after saving a new favourite song on Spotify is look at the artist’s Instagram page. Ultimately, this action leads to questions we are forced to answer, especially with the changing political climate across North America. The answers to these questions may seem simple: don’t follow them. But every time you go back to that song, something may haunt you. I faced these issues when it came to artists like Hedley (who made up my middle school days) and even the iconic figure of John Lennon. The question becomes a lot more completed when the artworks that are derived from people able to commit despicable actions are part of everyday life. It makes it even harder when I know they will profit from my consumption of their work.

It’s changed with the era. The intricacies of many of my favourite authors’ lives will never be broadcasted because they simply aren’t known. There are little known facts about Shakespeare’s personal life, and what we do know is so far removed from us that it almost feels like fiction. He is an imagined artist. The consumption of his, or any, art is the consumption of a representation. To connect the representation to the representor is a fairly modern phenomenon. The connection is accessible.

The positive side of this is that the knowledge of an artist’s life can enrich their works. Reading The Bell Jar while knowing Sylvia Plath’s story is more tragic, more desolate. Singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, whose latest album, Carrie and Lowell, beautifully represents pain and loss is really a tribute to his late mother. The knowledge of his loss while listening to the lyrics of the tracks combine to create a sense of bittersweet glory.

There is less of an imagined artist and more of a demand to know. Stevens, and other artists of our day are far more inclined to share their stories because we demand them. Of course we can’t ask Shakespeare what he was thinking when he wrote “To be or not to be,” but we can read articles and interviews with our favourite artists and tear away the layers of their personal life in order to reveal the meaning behind their art.

Still, art is a representation. To connect the representation to the representor is to fabricate a narrative you have never lived through. Art exists, and always has existed, as its own entity. To connect the product of someone’s imagination to the person is arbitrary. To debate the purpose of art defeats the purpose of art itself. However, we circle back to the debate on despicable artists.

Recently, I watched Good Will Hunting while being naïve to the fact that the film was produced by the Weinstein Company. I also had no idea what Casey Affleck looked like and didn’t know he was in the film. When I did find out, however- almost toward the end of the film, through a message from a friend- I watched on. I watched with a lingering guilt and afterwards felt the guilt tugging at my stomach for the rest of the day. I somehow felt responsible for contributing to a damaging culture of sexual harassment. I held myself accountable and vowed to never enjoy the film again. I thought about this after I’d stopped feeling totally guilty. It isn’t my guilt. It should be their guilt. It’s them that should be held accountable (which they should be). It is the shame of the criminal, not mine.

But then, I thought, aren’t we all accountable, as a collective- as a society- to care and protect one another by making ethical choices of consumption? I leave this question open because I think it has multiple answers, one of those being: if we have the power to withdraw our support, we should. Don’t buy their work. Torrent, buy used if at all, watch at a friend’s house, borrow the DVD or book from the library if you feel the desire to indulge in their artistry. But the fact is, if they are still alive, and you don’t support their morals, don’t put your money towards them. It’s a waste. I know I’m never going to lay eyes on reruns of The Cosby Show again. Now, more than ever, choice in our society is one of the greatest privileges of all time. Consumers of this generation deserve to be picky.

Responsible artistry is a concept that I think is gaining traction because people are being picky. Being picky means holding each other accountable for our actions- good, bad and occasionally ugly. It’s okay to hit unfollow if that Instagram page isn’t everything you hoped it would be. ✉

piece by: hadiyyah kuma

visual by: good will hunting



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