Separating the Art from the Artist
March 11, 2019 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone think of an instance where "separating the art from the artist" doesn't straightforwardly endorse the worst of bad artist/genius/person behavior? Is there any instance where this kind of thinking was actually good for the vulnerable? minorities? disempowered? disenfranchised??

Who was making the "we must separate the art from the artist" argument and why, anyway??
posted by Dressed to Kill to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What you're mostly talking about is the modern pop culture defense of shitheads, but it came from the concept of the Death of the Author, which Lindsay Ellis just covered in an entertaining video. The way we talk about separating the art and the artist now is a fair way away from its literary-theory origins (and may always have been problematic, albeit in different ways) but it's a good place to get a general start.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:06 PM on March 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

[And a mod note - please stick to concrete resources or references, and avoid anecdata, or the thread will devolve into angry chatfilter. Thanks.]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 12:13 PM on March 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Is there any instance where this kind of thinking was actually good for the vulnerable? minorities? disempowered? disenfranchised??

While this is not a concrete reference, the parameters I would use to answer that question would be situations where artists were indeed unjustly attacked and yet people separated their art from the artists.

An example -- I do not know enough to know whether it is theoretical or not -- might be the McCarthy hearings. However, given that the studios self-censored, an audience might not have had an opportunity to do so.
posted by WCityMike at 12:17 PM on March 11, 2019

Is there any instance where this kind of thinking was actually good for the vulnerable? minorities? disempowered? disenfranchised??

Arguably many LGBTQ authors, actors, etc. benefitted from a broad tendency to be accepting of "moral failings" among artists. I think that might, to some extent, fall into the same category. Think of the Victorians turning a blind eye to Wilde's relationships with men because his plays made them laugh. Is that the sort of thing you're wondering about?

The separation (to a greater or lesser degree) of the art from the artist is, as noted above, a pretty basic assumption of a lot of art theory and criticism. Barthes' essay is the obvious first step for learning more. I think that, in reality, the idea is a much better starting point than an endpoint: the correct approach is to establish connections between artist and art on an empirical basis, rather than assuming that they do or don't exist. I think it depends massively upon what art and which artist.

For example, I feel a lot less unhappy about using an Eric Gill font than I do watching a Polanski movie (and won't do the latter at all), even though they were/are both documented child rapists, for a range of tangible (you can't normalise or justify your crimes through a font, Gill is dead and can't get my money) and intangible (I just feel more creeped out by the sense of intimacy between me and a rapist that watching a Polanski movie creates). I know there are plenty of people who would disagree with me, in all kinds of ways, and many of them would have good reasons. It's complicated I guess.
posted by howfar at 12:25 PM on March 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

The idea that the value of the artwork is separate from the personal qualities of the artist has been around as long as people have been contemplating art, at least in the European tradition, as far as I can tell. Plato, in the Republic, could be said to "separate the art from the artist" when speaking about poets -- the twist here being that all poetry (besides bland hymns to gods and heroes) is bad, regardless of the artist or his/her intentions. The idea that art and artist are separable is pretty much the norm in the ancient world, if you look at Aristotle's Poetics, Plutarch's De Audiendis Poetis, and related treatises. Later theorists of art, such as David Hume ("Of the Standard of Taste") and Immanuel Kant (Critique of Judgment) continue to separate the art from the artist, and don't really seriously consider doing anything else. So the idea of separating art and artist goes way back before things like Barthes's "The Death of the Author."
posted by demonic winged headgear at 12:25 PM on March 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

"Who was making the "we must separate the art from the artist" argument and why, anyway??"

People make this argument sometimes to just be jerks and diminish the harm someone has done, but I also think it is a legitimate question to reckon with. Take Michael Jackson, the "who" in this case are the many, many, many people who love his music, and the "why" is because his musical output is classic American pop canon everyone-loves-it stuff. A recent article about Jackson that I think has some good insights into your question quotes D.H. Lawrence here: "Never trust the teller, trust the tale." The idea that "separating the art from the artist" always "straightforwardly endorses the worst of bad artist/genius/person behavior" is not even close to being a settled matter.
posted by cakelite at 12:31 PM on March 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Given that separating the art from the artist / Death of the Author is largely about legitimizing and endorsing interpretations of the art that the artist did not intend and endorsing the idea that a text can have multiple valid interpretations, I would say that it's the basis for a huge amount of feminist/queer/anti-colonialist/etc. scholarship and interpretation of earlier works. This is actually mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Death of the Author.
posted by phoenixy at 12:33 PM on March 11, 2019 [12 favorites]

I'm not exactly sure what reference you're talking about, but the idea of separating art from artists seems to me to be valid in many but not all instances. James Joyce, for example, seems to have been a difficult and self-centered guy. I don't think I would have wanted to be married to him. And yet Ulysses is one of the most miraculous pieces of writing anyone has ever created. Very flawed people can create some breathtaking works of art. On the other hand, Ezra Pound was a fascist, and for me that makes his poetry completely unappealing and tainted. But a poet friend of mine feels differently. The photographer Nicholas Nixon's photographs of his wife and her sisters taken over 40 years are exquisite. I stood and stared at them for a long time at the Museum of Modern Art and was deeply moved. A couple years later, it came out that he sent dick pics to some of his students. It makes me dislike him, but it doesn't change how moved I am by those photographs.
posted by swheatie at 12:34 PM on March 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

This may not be the context you are thinking of, but in the 1970s and 1980s, orchestras introduced blind auditions, where the musicians performed behind a screen. This significantly contributed to the increase in the number of women selected.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:39 PM on March 11, 2019 [8 favorites]

Who was making the "we must separate the art from the artist" argument and why, anyway??

Pete Davidson made the argument on Saturday Night Live the other night and offers his own solution (donating money to a sexual abuse survivor charity whenever you listen/watch art by an accused serial predator).
posted by NoraCharles at 1:13 PM on March 11, 2019

What limits are you intending for “art,” here? Do non-humanistic scholarly fields count?
posted by eirias at 1:21 PM on March 11, 2019

Who was making the "we must separate the art from the artist" argument and why, anyway??

these are not terms under which any serious argument is made or can be made; the question assumes its own peculiar conclusion. there is no "must"; it's always already done. when do you separate the loaf of bread from the baker? Art is separated from its artist at the moment of finished artistic production.

and art is permanently estranged from the artist at the moment of publication/exhibition/sale. the attempt of any artist to hobble her creation or put it on some kind of permanent leash so that it can't walk away is a ridiculous one, and seen to be so. the longer an artist tries to prolong some kind of fruitless artificial personal connection with a finished piece of art, via endless director's cuts or revised unabridged editions, the sadder and less interesting they become.

an artist, since she is a human being, can learn, grow, repent, change, atone, and so on during her lifetime. but her art, since it is in fact separate from her, cannot and will not grow and improve alongside the artist. if her first book was clumsy and bigoted, it will remain so for the rest of time, no matter what moral expansions she makes in herself. if she wants to undo the unpleasantness of an old work, too bad; all she can do is make a new one.

the loudest and most offensive proponents of identifying art with artist are those who defend criminals and bigots and those who will not concede that though art can mirror its creator, it does not have to: the roman polanski fans, for example, who don't want their beloved to go to jail for his heinous crimes because his films are too good. If they had the maturity and discernment to separate the art from the artist, they would of course be forced to admit that the brilliance, not to mention the feminism, of a Rosemary's Baby, has nothing to say to the fact of Polanski's criminal conduct. it's not that it doesn't weigh heavily in the balance; it doesn't weigh at all. There is no such balance. the very idea of connecting art and artist in such a way is obscene. and when a society is clear that there is no such connection, it becomes less and less possible to try to excuse one with appeals to the quality of the other.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:13 PM on March 11, 2019 [32 favorites]

Also, there's an argument to be had that a Polanski who had gone to jail for his crime and contemplated what he did, struggled with that part of himself and come through, would now be a far more interesting filmmaker than the Polanski who fled and refuses to engage in his actions.

The argument that this is necessary to protect great art and artists by ignoring acts of violence and cruelty committed by the artists is denying autonomy to those artists. If they are artists, they're meant to fully engage in their worlds and not be sheltered from the consequences like children.

Another argument is also the cost of the victims of the predatory artists. They frequently hurt students and other artists, silencing their voices. By showing support through attention and funding to predatory artists, you have a knock-on ripple effect that silences another generation of voices.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 3:25 PM on March 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Well, what do you think about Black Liberation Theology? Arguably, it's a case of taking the "art" or written religious texts and, through a process of interpretation, applying its themes to a new set of conditions those writers couldn't have imagined.

Similar processes happen in the unconventional (but textually faithful) interpretation of Shakespeare plays.

I believe we constantly separate art from artists, but we tend to only have the conversation when the artist is problematic.
posted by Miko at 4:30 PM on March 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

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