Art and artists: can and should we separate them?
t the first dance of the school year, a song begins to play and the room goes quiet.
It happens slowly, starting at the center of the room and spreading to the edges. The song opens with heavy bass, mournful synth, and brooding lyrics. People sit down, cross-legged or kneeling, making X signs, swaying in silence. Lights, blue and purple, flood the gym, now quiet except for the blaring song and the murmur of people singing along.
The song is “SAD!” by XXXTentacion, who was fatally shot in June.
“I put my source of happiness in another person, which was a mistake initially, right? But she fell through on every occasion until now. Until…I started f***ing her up because she made one mistake. And from there, the whole cycle went down. Now she’s scared. That girl is scared for her life. Which I understand.”
This is an excerpt from a 27-minute tape released by the Miami-Dade County state attorney’s office in which XXXTentacion confesses to and details his physical and psychological abuse of his pregnant girlfriend. Both the prosecution and XXXTentacion’s defense considered the tape a confession.
“It’s a privileged position to say ‘separate art from artist’ when the abused can’t separate trauma from their abuser. #MuteRKelly.”
The rapper also had a history of violent homophobia. In an interview with No Jumper, he laughed and went on to graphically describe beating and almost killing a man in prison because “he was staring at me” and he thought the man was gay, while using derogatory language.
Ethan Knight (12) listens to XXXTentacion’s music casually but isn’t interested in mourning him; he chose not to participate in the sit-down at the dance.
“When you choose to sit down like that, you’re saying something about him as a person,” Knight said. For him, the art versus artist debate is not strictly black and white: “I think you can listen to somebody’s work even if you don’t fully agree with what they’re doing or even if they’ve done some horrible stuff in the past.”
For many listeners, it is far easier to separate the art from the artist when the art doesn’t bring to mind the artist’s abuse. Woody Allen—who was been accused of rape and molestation and is notorious for having married his ex-girlfriend’s daughter—is one artist who comes to mind. It is more difficult for many viewers to ignore his previous misconduct while watching movies such as Manhattan, where Woody Allen stars as a middle-aged man dating a high school girl.
Knight employs a common strategy: avoiding information altogether.
“I don’t try to seek that stuff out. It’s just kind of disturbing, you know?,” Knight explained. “I have an idea of what he did, and that’s enough.”
Is it wrong to enjoy the music of an artist who has done such terrible things? What about after their death? And how do these questions interact with the #MeToo movement’s endeavor to hold abusive men accountable?
He also admitted that he probably wouldn’t be able to listen to XXXTentacion’s music if he learned the full extent of his abuse; after learning about Chris Brown and R. Kelly’s reputations of abuse, he finds their work “unlistenable.”
One female student who preferred to remain anonymous assuages herself of guilt by consuming art in a way that doesn’t support the artist financially. If she absolutely must listen to or watch the work of an artist who she views as morally reprehensible, she feels more comfortable pirating it. When asked how people are able to separate the art from the artist, she imagines that it’s for one of two reasons: because it’s more convenient, or because they just don’t care.
The question of how easy it is for people to separate the art from the artist, however, does not answer the essential question of whether art should be separate from the artist.
The same female student also showed me a tweet she had read a few months ago, which she said allowed her to gain a deeper understanding of why she felt uneasy supporting artists like XXXTentacion as a sexual assault survivor herself. The tweet, by user @monae_2001, reads “It’s a privileged position to say ‘separate art from artist’ when the abused can’t separate trauma from their abuser. #MuteRKelly.”
This argument encourages consumers to put themselves in the victim’s shoes and stand in solidarity. But that kind of response doesn’t work for everyone.
The fact is that abusive men are so pervasive that it would be impossible to get a conceptual grasp on art without consuming the work of abusers. Pablo Picasso, for example, psychologically tormented women his whole life.
“After I listened to X’s music, I feel like had I known about that aspect of him, I’d have been a little more cautious about listening to his stuff. For example, Chris Brown I had heard about way before I listened to any of his songs.”
But it is not practical, advisable, or even possible to go through one’s life without consuming Picasso’s work; his influence on the world of art is immeasurable. To Allen Frost, director of the Innovative Teacher Program at Nueva, Picasso’s abuse would be a point of discussion rather than a reason to avoid his art. Teaching Picasso could become an opportunity to have a conversation about the ways Picasso’s attitude toward women may have manifested themselves in his work.
Can that same attitude be applied to spaces outside the classroom, to less influential abusive artists who are still living and whose victims are still very much alive? Knight believes that the main reason consumers are able to separate the art from the artist is a lack of thoughtfulness; many students listen to abusive artists simply because they choose not to think about the implications. And while many students wish they could be more conscientious about the media they consume and its impact on the world, it is difficult—and inconvenient—to actually bring to action.
Nueva’s community prides itself on thoughtful, meaningful discussion; community members also strive to be supportive and sensitive to those around them. When it comes to art—a medium tied intrinsically to emotion, pain, and identity—it is all the more important to think carefully about the implications of one’s actions. Therefore, beyond consumption and one’s own technical ability to separate the art from the artist, lies a broader responsibility: compassion for victims, thoughtfulness about content, and sensitivity. Censorship is not the answer, nor is it the cry.
Written by Beatrice Stewart