I grew up adamantly insisting on separating the art from the artist.
Though I’m still wrestling with the merits of this approach, I’ll freely admit that my adolescent separation verged on the sociopathic, a product of unexamined privilege that allowed me to escape my annoyance with humanity by pretending like humans didn’t create the work in front of me (even though someone did, obviously). My previously-outlined apathy towards uncovering authorial intent might be a byproduct of this philosophy (hyperlink).
In recent years, the promotion of different voices, somewhat thanks to my personally-dreaded social media, has inspired me, and hopefully many others like to me, to re-adjudicate the validity of this perspective, happily forcing me to reevaluate my own artistic and critical sensibilities. This topic reared its ugly head yet again this week, with the widespread rejection of Louis CK’s initial foray into making a triumphant comeback less than one year after his sexual misdeeds came to light, and with the news that Amazon has permanently shelved Woody Allen’s signed, sealed, and delivered next project.
Now I’m left wondering if this moralistic refusal to separate the art from the artist is a fad, or the new normal. In any case, the trend’s probably for the better; it’ll take away an insignificant amount of significant pieces of art we otherwise would’ve gotten. But in the grand scheme of, well, the moral arc of humanity, losing the rest of one artist’s career, or even a couple, in this era of unlimited content isn’t THAT major, especially if it serves as a sort of check on such illicit behavior.
I actually think rooting out immoral content in art is more potentially damaging than ostracizing immoral artists. In our progressive march into the future, society seems uncomfortable with the blurry line between depiction and condoning. Showing the way the world is does not equate to tacit support. Does art dealing with such dangerous subjects need to condemn them, and should pieces that don’t be condemned?
As of now, — again, all of my beliefs are liable to change upon further investigation; yay, open-mind! — I tend to err (I guess this sentence could end here for some of you, lol) on the side of (to reiterate an aforementioned point) that we can never be objectively confident in our own subjective conceptions of authorial intent; thus, why hypothesize? Instead, the role of us critics should be to give the benefit of the doubt by expressing that condemnation of the depiction, without condemning the depiction itself.
This very conversation seems like a quasi-response to Trump; the liberal majority of America feels powerless in the face of Trump’s America. To reclaim some agency, they’re focusing on shaping what they can control: their own art, which possesses the power to shape future generations of impressionable audiences. A part of this movement also might be an offshoot of 21st century transparency, perhaps the greatest in human history. Thanks to technology, we can now know more about everyone than ever before, which has revealed the rampant immorality run amok in our preferred corners of the world (for a reminder of the shadows the rich and famous were both relegated, and able, to live in, watch the new documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood).
Though it may look like we’re worse off than ever, it’s more that we’re now just aware of more than ever, leading some to falsely maintain that America needs to be made great again. That glorified past never actually existed; it was a construction perpetuated by the powerful to shield their own turpitude. No one likes to face the fact that their idols, artistic or otherwise, are just like us, sometimes far worse and more harmful, given their mass influence.
Perhaps my willingness to separate art from artist stems from my lifelong assumption that most people are shit. I never thought that my heroes of the stage and screen were any better than anyone else; with everyone in my life and life itself, I assumed the worst, and thus was pleasantly surprised when someone exceeded my expectations. Lowering the bar by declaring that everyone’s guilty until proven innocent afforded me distance from my peers, freeing me to interpret the art separate from the artist.
There’s an inherent contradiction between bestowing the aforementioned benefit of the doubt on art, while labeling the artists as guilty until proven innocent. Again, it’s a process…
Society at large appears to be coming to this realization. Yet instead of computing the same, coldly-removed calculus as yours truly, others are actively trying to dethrone those at the top of the ladder, in an effort to improve, well, everything. Was the state of the world responsible for my worldview? If it was, reconfiguring the world could forever alter how we all view it. Or, are our worldviews a choice, and by choosing to admit that art cannot justify any harm, we’re making the world a better place…