In recent years, influential artists such as rapper Kanye West and J. K. Rowling have been the subjects of massive controversies. As more and more artists reveal themselves to be problematic in their beliefs and actions, many have begun to wonder if it is acceptable to continue enjoying the art without supporting the artist. While it is undoubtedly any individual’s right to make the personal choice whether or not to support an artist they deem problematic, art can still be appreciated and enjoyed separately from the artist. 

Of course, prominent artists facing massive controversies is no new phenomenon. From visionary directors like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen to idolized entertainers like Bill Cosby, American society has long had to grapple with many cases of beloved, talented creators committing heinous crimes or otherwise objectionable acts.

However, in the current age of social media, when technology has enabled information to be more widely accessible than ever before, celebrities are held to a higher standard of accountability for their words and actions, liable to face public scrutiny for every aberrant comment caught on their record. After such accusations of serious wrongdoings, many have been quick to end their support for famous artists and stop consuming their art.

West’s extensive history of controversial comments and actions has long made him a divisive figure among the American public, but his recent espousal of virulently antisemitic sentiments, including an endorsement of Adolf Hitler, has completely destroyed his public image, causing Adidas to terminate their multibillion-dollar partnership.

Yet the consequences of West’s comments have not been limited to just corporate ostracism, a large number of former fans refusing to listen to his music. In February 2022, West had six albums charting simultaneously on the Billboard 200 charts. With his 2021 album Donda dropping off on November 30, West now has only one album charting as of January 4.

While artistic quality, to a large extent, is subjective, any piece of artwork has an inherent, objective value. Regardless of how one’s perception of an artist changes and how that might affect their own subjective appreciation for the art, innate artistic quality remains the same. R. Kelly’s hit single “I Believe I Can Fly” did not suddenly change its audio after his conviction for sex crimes. If there is artistic merit to enjoying a work before such an incident, that same merit exists for enjoying the work after.

It is the artistic quality that is subject to the eye of the beholder when one considers their appreciation, not the actions and words of the artist, no matter how odious. While there are indeed many who find it difficult to derive enjoyment from art by problematic artists, there are also those who continue to appreciate their art for what it is. 

Many have opined that it is simply impossible to avoid having an artist’s biography influence one’s appreciation of their work, that an artist and their art cannot be viewed separately since art is always a reflection of the artist themselves. But even in the scenario that the content matter and authenticity of a work are inexorably tied to the identity of the artist, it is the artist themselves who are diminished rather than the art.

West’s acclaimed 2005 album Late Registration features an abundance of social, economic, and political commentary, deriving from his own experiences with institutional racism and injustice in the American capitalist market economy. In the songs Roses and Diamonds From Sierra Leone, West criticizes capitalism as a socio-economic system, repudiating privatized health care and neocolonial exploitation of Africa, respectively. On Crack Music and Addiction, West attacks former US presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush for the War on Drugs and Iran-Contra, assigning them the blame for both endemic problems in the Black community and his own personal struggles. 

With West’s rise to billionaire status and the obscenely bigoted rhetoric that caused him to lose that status, such condemnations of capitalistic exploitation and institutional racism ring completely hollow. However, regardless of West’s present actions, the intrinsic musical value of the album and its commentary is undiminished, even despite the album’s roots in him and his personal experiences. With or without West as a shepherding figure for Late Registration’s critiques, the validity of the points made in the album and the potency of the music in which they are layered do not change.

In most cases, an artist’s art is a means of income for them, so the consumption of that art  supports  the artist financially. For example, for most singers and musicians, their art is shared through music streaming services, which pay them based on the number of streams they get from listeners. As a result, by listening to a problematic artist like Chris Brown, one would be putting money in his pockets. The same is true for many actors, directors, authors, etc. Thus, many suggest that, since art cannot be financially untethered from the artist, separating them is impossible.

However, if one views music through this pecuniary lens, one must also view the relationship between an artist and their art as analogous to that of a vendor and their wares. In a market economy, consumption is impersonal. Just as many practitioners of ethical consumerism choose to boycott Kellogg’s for their exploitative, anti-worker policies, millions more continue buying and eating Frosted Flakes, Pop-Tarts, and other Kellogg’s products without blinking an eye. 

Purchasing a Pop-Tart directly funds and encourages questionable ethical practices, but the decision to buy such products is not rooted in a callous disregard for morality. Rather, consumers simply separate the product from the producer, valuing the qualities of the product with little consideration for the producer. People buy Jordans because they like the sneakers, not because they adore Nike and its exploitation of child labor, even though the manufacturing of those sneakers are predicated upon this exploitation. Moreover, unlike companies like Kellogg’s or Nike, where wrongdoing is built into the production process, rarely does monetary support exacerbate the negative impact of an artist’s wrongdoings.

The purpose of such comparisons is not an exercise in whataboutism or a commentary on selective outrage but rather to illuminate the ultimately transactional nature of consumption in the American capitalist landscape. For families that eat Frosted Flakes every morning, their conception of the Kellogg Company as a corporation might amount to nothing more than the logo on their cereal box. In that same manner, for many music listeners on popular streaming services like Spotify, the artist might amount to no more than a few tiny letters below the song name on their phone screen. 

Most people who consume art are not making deliberate, meditative contemplations on the morality of whose art they consume. Music, movies, books, and paintings are all sources of pleasure; people consume what they thus find to be most enjoyable. The reprehensible actions of others should not dictate what anyone can or cannot enjoy. 

Even in an educational setting, where displaying and analyzing art are often for the purpose of learning rather than personal enjoyment, art can still be separated from the artist. The rampant misogyny of Pablo Picasso and his documented physical abuse of women do not diminish the technical brilliance of his art nor the tremendous influence of his acclaimed masterpieces on art history. His paintings would be no more worthy of display had he been an unparalleled philanthropist and no less worthy had he been a maniacal killer. A work of art that warrants commendation and dissemination to the youth without the knowledge of the artist’s problems should be worthy of the same even with that knowledge.

Anybody can choose whether or not to enjoy or support any particular artist, problematic or not. But just as choosing not to enjoy art by a problematic artist is a personal choice, the converse is also true: separating the art from the artist is a personal decision. Acknowledging that art can be separated from the artist allows people to ultimately enjoy what they want.

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