Let’s talk about…Separating the art and the artist

Should we separate artists from their work? Can we?

What happens if someone’s work carries immense value to you, but you consider their personal actions/ views to be unacceptable? At what point does your support of their work infer support of them as a person?

HBO kicked off the new year on January 1st with the release of the Harry Potter 20th anniversary reunion special, which saw the return of much of the films’ main cast. Given the huge fanbase that the franchise built during the peak of its popularity, the amount of discussion generated online around the special was to be expected. However, there is one talking point in particular that continues to divide opinion and spark debate, and it all comes back to author JK Rowling’s absence from the special.

Despite being the books’ author and appearing in archival footage in parts of the special, Rowing does not appear in interviews alongside the franchise’s cast. Many speculated that the reason behind this had to do with her comments about the trans community, particularly trans women.

In a series of 2020 tweets and a blog post written in response to the tweets’ backlash, Rowling dismissed the lived experiences of trans women, spouted an extensive amount of harmful misinformation, and painted trans women’s existence as an obstacle to dealing with women’s issues. As more and more evidence of her transphobia came to light, Rowling immediately lost the respect and following of many who had been fans of hers and her work for years, and in my opinion understandably so.

So, when the reunion special was released, many speculated that Rowling’s absence could be attributed to the transphobic comments she had made in the years prior, and the fact that many of the cast involved in the reunion were among those who spoke out against the statements she’d made. While this remained the prevailing view for a while, representatives from Rowling’s team denied that this was the case, citing that there was just simply no need to include Rowling in the reunion – outside of archival footage.

Nevertheless, Rowling’s notable absence in the special had already reignited the same online debate that happened in the wake of her original transphobic tweet, a debate which is brought up almost every time a creator finds themselves in deep water: What happens when you love the art but don’t support the artist?

The problematic and sometimes extremely harmful sides of high profile figures and how such revelations come to light are intertwined with cancel culture, the pitfalls of which of clear to see. In theory, cancel culture aims to hold people accountable for their transgressions, but usually it just squashes any opportunity for nuanced conversation or education on the issues it claims to be defending. Much less does it actually result in any meaningful change or consequences to the lives or careers of those being ‘cancelled’.

However, regardless of where cancel culture falls short, recent years have indeed revealed the ugly truths about many once-loved celebrities and creators. It is not uncommon to have it revealed to you now that a creator you enjoy fails to uphold your moral beliefs. So, what happens if someone’s work carries immense value to you, but you consider their personal actions/ views to be unacceptable? At what point does your support of their work infer support of them as a person?

The solution usually given to those who ask this question is to ‘separate the art from the artist’. The philosophy behind this idea is quite simple and at first glance makes sense. You can’t convince yourself you don’t like something, so surely the only way to reconcile your connection to a piece of work and your disapproval towards the person who created it is to treat them as separate things? But then, of course, the argument becomes about whether that can be done in the first place, citing that all art is an expression of the artist that made it. So where does that leave us?

At the core of this conversation around whether people should support work made by problematic artists or whether art and artist can ever be separated, is the role of the consumer. You can preach separation of art and artist, but not if the artist directly benefits from your support of their work. As such, the solution settled on by a lot of people has been to still enjoy an artist’s work, but not to support them monetarily.

However, for many people, there’s a moral grey area that is going to persist when you support a creator whose actions you are fundamentally opposed to, and if this is something you can’t live with, you simply no longer interact with their work. It feels clear that in the end, navigating how to enjoy an artist’s work while not supporting their views/actions is not a process that is ever going to end with a completely satisfying conclusion.

As with cancel culture, the conversation around the separation of art and artist too often becomes about deciding which binary viewpoint you subscribe to – is X person 100% bad or 100% good, is it harmless or harmful to support a problematic artist etc? When a problem is approached like this, there is no way to arrive at an answer that satisfies both sides. In truth, both problems would be most effectively tackled by addressing the realities that lead to problematic behaviour, and to have the nuanced conversations that these issues deserve.

In some ways we are moving more towards this type of nuanced conversation, but there remains a very long way to go. In the meantime, feel free to exercise your best judgement about what to do when an artist you like does something you disagree with, but be mindful of what you’re deeming as acceptable when you do.