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Can you, or should you, separate the artist from their art? If someone made fantastic pictures but was a complete rissole (as we say in front of the kids), could you continue to like what they produced? Would that change if your appreciation gave them money, perhaps from buying their work?

I’m thinking of a cartoonist I used to like. Initially I liked his work so much I bought some of his books, that were collections of his cartoon strips. Then a couple of his books had writing in, which the author used to express his ideas on management and physics. The first was misguided and the second was crazy. Or to use Murray Gell-Man’s phrase: ‘not even wrong’. Then the author became a supporter of Trump. And then made some racist comments. I had stopped reading his stuff when he went off the rails with his written ideas and had given his books away to a charity shop. I’d stopped following his cartoons after I heard his paean to Trump, but I was still disappointed that he followed-through as a racist. I should have listened to a real artist – “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”.

In this case it was easy to drop the art with the artist. But there are other artists whose work is better, but who are also rissoles  of the first degree. Racist and anti-vax musicians, violent and misogynistic painters, Nazi photographers. So is it possible, or even morally right, to appreciate the art while disliking the artist? The problem is of course, that appreciating the art often sends money to the artist. There is also an odd halo effect that people who are good at one thing are thought to be good in general. Why else do artists or actors get asked their views on current affairs? The same effect makes us think that people who are beautiful or rich are also good. So a talented artist who looks nice and has a bit of cash is assumed to be both clever and correct. And when we pay for the art, our money makes the artist famous and virtuous. This confirms to them that their beliefs must be correct. Unfortunately, we give them status.

Imagine a picture here. I have the picture but I’m not sharing it. I was walking on a beach and found a cardboard figure stuck in the sand. From the back of the beach it looked like a person coming in from the sea and up the small dunes. The figure was a caricature of one of the Black and White Minstrels. I can hope that the figure was planted in the sand as a protest and to make fun of our Home Secretary. But I have no wish for anyone to have access to this picture and potentially cause harm or distress. Private Eye maybe, but nobody else.

Equally contentious, in many places

Which leads to another question: can nice people make good art? Do you have to be at odds with society or yourself to be creative? Probably not – there are people who are or were very creative but who also seem to be decent and normal. Let me reinforce that: I don’t think there is any justification for being bad, no matter what art you produce. Being a bad or nasty person detracts from your art, because it makes me question the value of it (plus being nasty is bad in itself, whether you make art or not). I might like what you have produced but I will always worry that liking it validates your views or behaviour. I believe it is true though that to make art you must be vulnerable, in the sense of being open to the world. But perhaps I’ve shot down my own argument, in that bad people can also make good art? So I’m back to trying to separate the art from the artist, or wondering if I should.

Of course there is a counter-argument that people with unpopular views are unfairly repressed in what John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of the majority. But I think we are generally smart enough to tell the difference between hate and dissent. If you seek or cause harm or deficit to others, you are hateful. I think this solves what is being called cancel culture – the way filtering should work is that we do not support anyone calling for harm or deficit to others, but we should listen to anyone wanting to challenge our ideas or beliefs.

So I think I need to vote with my morals and try not to fund or support people who are bad (as I defined it). Of course they have a right to free speech (as long as they don’t try to harm others and take responsibility for their views), but I have the right to not pay them attention. In debating it is considered bad form to make an ad hominem attack: to criticise the person and not their ideas, but that is in an artificial environment where it is only the ideas that should be argued. If we separate the art from the artist, I think we can legitimately criticise a person’s behaviour independently of their work.

I agree totally with John Stuart Mill’s set of basic liberties, and these mean that the artist of whom I disapprove is free to do as they wish (causing no harm), but I don’t have to pay them any money or time. Actually, I have an example of just that thing. I went to a talk by a famous photographer who turned-out to be a rather unpleasant character. I’d been uneasy about his work, but the talk was an opportunity to hear the photographer’s intentions. What he did was to clarify my dislike. His attitude to his subjects means that I can’t now look at his work without remembering his views, so I won’t be following his work or recommending it. As the motto has it brevior vita es quam pro futumentibus negotiam agendo.


Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

2 thoughts on “Art/ist?”

  1. I have had the same dilemma. There are certain actors, singers, artists etc. I just can’t stand to look at anymore due to their posted actions/views. I don’t wish them harm or advertise who they are or what they did, thereby encouraging others to feel the same…I just pay them no mind…or money.

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