Discussion: Separating the Art from the Artist?

Hi everyone,

Today’s post is going to be a bit different but it’s about something that’s been playing on my mind for a little while. With all the controversy surrounding JK Rowling, I really wanted to put my two cents in and give my own opinion on how we can separate the art from the artist (if we ever can).

I recently read some Tweets about Roald Dahl and his anti-semitic views and I watched a documentary about Lewis Carroll and his relationship with Alice Liddell (the child who inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). What I found particularly haunting during this documentary is that we often see Carroll’s books as something innocent and fantastical and pure enjoyment for children, but Lewis Carroll (or what we know of him) is not someone you would want spending time with your children. *Just a quick note to say that Lewis Carroll was never convicted of paedophili, however his reputation is quite dubious*. It made me reassess my own relationship with Carroll’s work – I love his Alice books and have loved them since I was a child; they bring me a lot of joy and the thought of having to reconsider this attachment is very sad.

Though the controversies surrounding these authors (and particularly the haunting Lewis Carroll documentary) have inspired me to write this post, this post is not in reference to any particular controversy surrounding any particular author.

I would also like to quickly note that separating the art from the artist is a personal decision that you have to make yourself. I completely understand that there are varying degrees of controversy surrounding people, as well as the difference between if an artist is still alive or not. While you may find separating the artist from the art acceptable in the case of someone like JK Rowling, other people may not find that possible. And while someone else may find it acceptable to separate Roman Polanski’s work from his controversies, someone else might not. It is a decision that has to be based on your own moral alignment.

The history books are full of artists who have behaved awfully but we still hold their art dear. If you search for it about any artist, I guarantee you will find it. Of course, in an ideal world we’d love if the authors and artists we admired also turned out to be decent people but that’s not always the case.

The biggest question we can ask ourselves is whether it is moral to continue to consume a piece of art, whether it is acceptable to ourselves and sits right with our own self-perception as a “moral” person, without taking into account the horrible nature of the people who created them.

To carry on enjoying art you’ve got to believe, although the creation of art is tied to the artist, that once an audience receives the art it becomes separated and takes on a form that is completely different to each person. Art is something that anyone can claim and interpret and take whatever meaning and inspiration they want from it; that is what makes art so beautiful. Art gradually peels apart from the artist and is then owned by the people who love it. Take Harry Potter for example; a whole world fell in love with Harry, it changed people’s lives and whatever happiness you took from that still remains regardless of JK Rowling (if you want it to). Great art is always bigger than the person who made it.

Over the years, we have been able to “forgive” many artists for their transgressions. As more and more people are being unmasked, it can become increasingly difficult to take pure enjoyment from their art. For me personally, it is an exercise worth doing (within limits) for the sake of art. Acknowledgement of the artist’s deed is always necessary, as in the era in which this controversy happened.

In the case of Lewis Carroll, of the approximately 3,000 photographs that he took in his life just over half are of children and 30 of these are depicted nude or semi-nude. The majority of these photos would (rightly so) shock us in 2020 but by Victorian standards they weren’t that unusual as we might think. Photographs of nude children oftentimes appeared in art galleries, as well as postcards, birthday cards etc. A Victorian attitude towards children was about innocence, grace and purity. Despite the difference in era, are we just trying to protect a much-loved author from what could have been then, and definitely is now, odd behaviour? Or are we trying to impose the sensibilities of the 21st century into the Victorian age?

Another point that I wanted to discuss is the cancel culture that is rife at the moment. Can we ever separate the art from the artist when we’re often being arm-twisted by society into condemning our own personal relationship with pieces of art? Do we give into the pressure of the groupthink that decides which art we must dislike because it’s maker was not deemed moral or good by the standards we hold in society now? There is a rallying cry surrounding all controversy to make sure that an artists’ name is forever associated with his or her actions.

It is a difficult question and a debate that goes round and round in my head every time I hear something horrible about an author whose work I love. For me, there are different precedents in each case and that has really reiterated to me that choosing to or choosing not to separate the art from the artist is a personal decision.

I don’t think anyone should be shamed for enjoying a work of art UNLESS their work deliberately promotes an awful ideology or horrible opinions, but also to how much of the artist we see in the work and to what degree the subject of the allegations creeps into the art.

Please feel free to let me know your opinions in the comments below.

Thanks for reading this massive brain-dump of a post!

Love, Zoë xx

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