Separating The Art From The Artist

The way we consume art and its many forms have constantly changed over the years, for good and bad. In its most recent formula of consumption patterns, many adopted the ‘cancel culture‘ to call out and cancel artists whom they found problematic. The concept initially came out of good conscience but has now evolved into an absurd trend. Almost everyone picked pace with the culture and turned into Thanos to cancel artists with a snap. 

I too have a fair share of artists that I strongly disagree with and at times, it irks me to consume their art. This nudged me into thinking

“Is it really possible to separate the art from the artist?”

For me, this line of separation is very fragile.

For instance,

After Sreejith Ravi was arrested for flashing school girls, it became impossible for me to watch his movies without cringing. And it got even more annoying because these were movies that I absolutely enjoyed at one point in time. 

Now that I have put my bias straight up, I’ll be tip-toeing around this topic with different ways to look at it. You’re free to counter them as it’s a vast grey area, so let’s have a conversation about it without cancelling each other just yet. 

As someone who wanted a fresh pair of eyes on the issue, I did the most obvious next thing – I asked my 8-year-old niece if she would read a work written by a terrible person. Added with facial cues of disgust from my side to show just how terrible this imaginary artist is.

Surprisingly, she spoke like a true connoisseur of art and said that she would definitely read the work.

Here, what an 8-year-old did was take the art as an entirely separate entity. Something that ideally happens in artistic spaces. And something that doesn’t quite often happen among us, because we let our moral and emotional attachment to the art and artist override it.

Interestingly, she also added that the artist would face the law if they are indeed a bad person. This is where I faced my first dissonance.

Do bad artists get consideration in front of the law for their good art?

When discussing this topic, I find it necessary to weigh case studies with a scale of terrible-ness.

So when I talk of artists who have done terrible things, I don’t mean slander, insensitive tweets, homophobic comments, sexist interviews, and so on. In these cases, it is a difference of opinion which would hopefully find a middle ground through conversations. The statements some make are surely no less harmful than assault, but cancelling them just yet is not something I would go along with.

After all, artists are also humans and they are not devoid of flaws. Some just tend to be vrithiketta kacharakal. 

The scale tips for me as the intensity of the crime gives me the spine-chilling, stomach-churning kind of reaction.

Does the law then interfere and put the artists on trial?

Do they receive the same kind of treatment that any other person would get?

Does their sentence get influenced by the position they hold in society and the art industry? 

In a utopian world, good art would be appreciated and bad artists would face the consequences of their acts regardless. But we are a few miles away from that utopia. And on some days, our lady justice can be blinded by things such as power politics and good art.

Few instances such as that, are artists like Benvenuto Cellini of the 16th century. He evaded the law for a good span and got bailed on the grounds of being an admired artist. What that drove to, was a series of similarly remorseless crimes by Cellini.

But for every Cellini, we also have a Caravaggio who landed in jail.

All these artists, be it from the Renaissance or the 20th century, have been associated with the great art they’ve created over time. Rather for the kind of person they were. 

Chaplin is remembered as someone who contributed boundless artistry to the world of cinema rather than someone who married teenage girls in his 50s. Or even as someone who was often described as “the most sadistic man” by his co-stars.

Pablo Picasso is remembered as the revolutionary artist behind the Cubism movement rather than a misogynist who described women as two kinds – ‘goddesses and doormats’, and exploited them mentally and physically for his art.

Richard Wagner continues to be remembered as the man who conceptualised “Gesamtkunstwerk” (ideal work of art) in the Opera rather than for being an anti-Semitic who contributed to Hitler’s Nazi propaganda.

So do we really separate the art from the artist? Or have we simply set the standard that great art nullifies great crimes? 

This also brings me to the next question,

Isn’t art essentially an extension of the artist themself?

When I see an art piece (paintings, movies, literature, you could name it), I don’t instantly connect it with the person who has created it. Or even bother finding bits and pieces of the creator’s mind in it.

The art in itself is my first takeaway. The artist comes second. 

It would probably be a subconscious method I have adopted over time to enjoy art without associating it with its creator. For instance, after watching Kolamavu Kokila and Doctor written and directed by Nelson, I went in to watch Beast with the same level of expectation. Baaki parayandallo? I tend to enjoy art a lot more independently if I’m unaware of the artist at first. 

However, artists tend to leave behind their signatures on their art. They have a peculiar style, form of expression, and many other unmissable cues that just scream out “This is my work!!”

Art, after all, is among the highest forms of expressionSo it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that art is, many times, a mirror to the artist through which they often reflect. 

This is precisely how I feel whenever I read works of people such as Kamala Surayya and Basheer. It is clear that these great writers penned down extensions of their own life, desires, and trauma. Kamala Surayya is one of the clearest examples of this as she became a topic of several controversies due to her style of confessional poetry. 

This form of artistic expression is never limited. I’ve been able to find bits and pieces of it when I actually look for it. Frida Kahlo’s paintings, Roald Dahl’s writings, Arivu’s rap music, Mari Selvaraj’s movies, the list could go on. 

But it also does not imply that art always tends to reflect the artist’s psyche. Some art is simply commercial or entertainment pieces, and nothing more or less. 

Being able to consume art mindfully, like every other thing, then becomes a point.

Where do you draw the line?

Honestly, my guess is as good as yours.

But here are a few things you can ask yourself to get some clarity,

  1. Is my consumption directly benefiting them in any way?
  2. Am I appreciating the art alone or celebrating the artist as well?

Take the case of Harvey Weinstein, the infamous Hollywood movie producer and sex offender who sparked the #MeToo movement.

The man benefited immensely from the money and power he derived from the industry. Result of that? His crimes since the 1970s were kept under whispers until 2017.

Weinstein had then gone ahead to hire private intelligence agents to track the victims and look into their personal and sexual histories. He also paid billions in bail money to get off the hook for his felonies.

The money for it all? We helped him bank it as an audience. Dont get me wrong, I’m not saying that by watching Pulp Fiction you helped a big shot cover up his crimes.

This example is just to show how art consumption is something that could help a terrible person earn money and easily get away with crimes for years. It enables them to establish themselves within the power structure that could silence many.

However, it gets a little complicated, especially when it comes to the movie industry.

You see, films are a collective artistic product. It’s not a one-man show in most cases and puts multiple technicians, artists, and distributors at risk if we choose to cancel it due to one individual. 

Here, what I would suggest would be an accountability culture where we consume art without negating the artist’s deeds. The money goes into their pockets, no doubt about that, but that shouldn’t hold us back from holding them accountable.

After all, public outrage has done the work many times before. 

Consumption of art and celebration of the artist can be separated by this thin line. 

And if you still feel irked because of your moral impetus, it’s still a good thing to act upon it. I personally choose to not consume certain content because of ideological differences or simply because some seem like complete douchebags. These are times I choose to keep my sanity and last two brain cells intact rather than indulge in art they could monetise from. 

Again, this comes from an entirely personal point of view. And from what I’ve read, it’s not always the best way to go about it when you’re trying to enjoy art. 

Right from the beginning of artistic creations, many have attempted to elevate art beyond the individual self. Like T.S Elliot once said,

“I have assumed as axiomatic that a creation, a work of art, is autonomous”.

The New Critics followed this line of thought swiftly. And so did the postmodernists, who came with the “Death of the Author” theory. This theory said that the ultimate meaning of a text lies within the reader’s interpretations, devoid of who or what the author was. 

Quite an interesting take, but definitely with its own challenges. 

TLDR Version

One article I came across while trying to understand the idealistic side of art consumption, read

“Should the fact that Lewis Carroll might have been a paedophile reduce the beloved stature that Alice in Wonderland has? Or, as I learnt while writing this, does Isaac Asimov’s alleged habit of groping women make the world he created any less awe-inspiring?”

And all I could think was “Fuck. What men are we even celebrating?”. Because honestly, I wouldn’t be as awed as much as disgusted over a man who made women feel unsafe.

So while this man was best known and celebrated for being one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers who wrote more than 500 books in his lifetime, he was also undeniably a creep who wrote “The question then is not whether or not a girl should be touched. The question is merely where, when, and how she should be touched.” (Consent having been a fictional concept). 

Art can be enjoyed as an individual experience. But when it comes to celebrating the artist who created it, it becomes a collective act. And at that time, it always helps to know who we’re throwing praises for.

It shouldn’t have us entirely avoid their creations or place them on a pedestal despite their terrible acts. Added with facial cues of disgust to show just how terrible this imaginary artist is.

So to summarise,

If I drew a Venn diagram on the separation of art and the artist, I would just be running around in circles.

Laxmi Mohan
Talks about everything from pazhampori to aanavakaraar charcha. But absolutely sucks at writing bios.


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