There is some bloody good art in the world. Loads of it, in fact. And some of it is made by horrible people.
Maybe “horrible people” is a bit strong, but people make choices that harm others, and artists are no exception to this rule. Sometimes these are horrible-people-level bad choices, and sometimes they’re misspoke-in-an-interview-level bad choices, but the fact remains that artists, like everyone, have the capacity to do harm, but unlike everyone, have a much bigger audience to whom they can do it. Doing harm to people is, of course, bad, but good art is good, and so we face the question: can I still enjoy the art? Or am I being a heartless bastard?
There is often a call, when a celebrity or author or actor or whoever fucks up, to “separate the art from the artist!”. It’s my view, though, that art is always shaped by its artist, that every tiny bit of every one of their works has them baked into it, and that you literally cannot “separate” the two. What this call actually seems to mean is, “Consume the art and stop complaining!”, which is a very different kettle of fish. Yes, sometimes the art is bloody good, but should an artist’s behaviour affect art they made before their shitty actions? Can I still enjoy the art, or am I being a heartless bastard for even wanting to?
When I’m trying to decide whether or not to carry on consuming the work of any particular artist, I like to ask myself three questions:
- Is it my place to forgive this person?
First things first: does it matter what I think? This post was inspired by J. K. Rowling’s recent transphobic word-diarrhea, and in that case, yeah, I get a vote; I’m trans. In other cases, though, like those of racism or of sexual assault, I prefer to listen to the people who are actually being harmed, and always err on the side of caution when it comes to supporting the artist in question, even if they apologise or donate a bunch of money somewhere or hire a skywriter to scrawl, “People of colour are okay, actually!” across the sky. If it isn’t my place to offer an artist forgiveness, that’s where my line of thought ends – but if it is, I keep thinking.
2. What real-world difference does my consumption of this art make?
Vivaldi may or may not have been a nonce. One could argue that I’m not really hurting anyone by jamming to Spring, because he and all his victims have been dead for a very long time, but I like to look a little closer: who is seeing me knowingly enjoy the work of a nonce? More broadly, I ask myself: Will my consumption of this art hurt people’s feelings? Make them feel alone in their struggle, or like I don’t care about their pain? Will it make them think that their bad behaviour is maybe a little more okay? Where is my money going, and will it be empowering more shitty people to do more shitty things? Essentially: will I be doing more harm?
3. How badly do I need this art?
Like I said before, this post is about JKR. I was huge into Harry Potter back in the day, devouring the same seven books over and over again, muttering along with the movies’ dialogue, planning my first Harry Potter tattoo – the works. Harry Potter was my solace for a lot of my life, and it helped me to find community when I was otherwise struggling to. The thought of losing Harry Potter hurts – but, really, it’s already lost. I clearly don’t need this particular art enough to ignore its artist’s transphobic bullshit, because I find myself now thoroughly turned off by every Potter reference I see. And it’s obviously not the same art I thought it was when I was younger, if we’re subscribing to the notion that an artist is baked into their work, because art coming from someone with a worldview that allows for transphobia is very different to art coming from somebody else.
I actually can’t imagine a scenario where I would ignore harm done to others for the sake of a good book or banging tune, but I like to ask myself this last question just in case – and also to remind myself that, actually, it’s no big loss if I have to cut the artist in question out of my life.
It hurts when an artist who made something we love behaves badly. It feels like the art has been taken away from us, even though what’s actually happened is just that we’ve learned more about who that artist is as a person. It stings, and it can be tempting to grit your teeth through the pain and keep enjoying the art. I’m not saying you have to follow my lead in asking yourself these questions and ditching artists who do harm, but I am asking you to consider the impact of your art consumption and to, you know, care about other people. Please?