The crescendo of abuse allegations against creators in our mainstream culture is reaching an all-time high. For years now, one question has kept popping up in our collective consciousness: can we separate the artist from the art? Of course what we really mean by this is, can we in good conscience continue to enjoy the works of people who have done unspeakable things?
As an artist, the idea of separating the artist from the art seems like a trick question. My art is an extension of myself. It is certainly sometimes an exaggeration, a composite, or an escape, but it always comes from me. My hope is that if I am wiling to be honest about myself in my art, in what I choose to write about, then perhaps my audience will connect with that around some universal truths. Perhaps there are some really ugly things that we feel that we are too ashamed to talk about, that can find their healing place in art. This, I believe, is the artist’s calling, but it’s a tall order to expose yourself like that.
Of course, not all artists operate this way. When it comes to creating, I feel like there are two types of artists: those who run towards their truth, and those who run from it. Amy Winehouse was a songwriter to sought to bare her soul in all its monstrosity in her music, and we couldn’t look away. The themes of addiction—to drugs, to her toxic relationship—were central to her music, her life, and, unfortunately, her demise.
On the other side of things, when I listen now to the stand-up comedy of Bill Cosby, I hear the squeaky-clean humour of someone who was trying to create a more innocent persona to hide or distract from the darkest parts of himself. He certainly fooled us for a long time, but perhaps he was also fooling himself. His crimes were singularly atrocious. However, do we not all create an idealized self-image to some extent? Do we not all run from our darkness, deny our faults, even a little bit? At the end of the day, these monsters are human, and there’s a little bit of them in all of us. For me, this lens makes listening to his stand-up a lot more disturbing, and a lot less funny. Not exactly my idea of an evening’s entertainment.
Of course, there are also those artists who expose their uglinesses with seemingly complete oblivion, like Robin Thicke in Blurred Lines.
So can you still enjoy the art of a monster? For me, I think it depends on how self-reflective and honest the artist has been about their demons in their art. But if the artist has been hiding something that is now in full view, I recommend putting their work into the context of their ugliness and see if you still like it. Would you still want to jam out to R. Kelly’s Ignition Remix if you knew he was addressing it to a 13-year-old girl? Because that is probably not far from the truth.