Can You Separate the Art from the Artist?

I find that I’ve had to ask myself this question at least once a year since I was a kid and heard that Michael Jackson was accused of being inappropriate with children. I didn’t want it to be true but I experienced some dissonance on whether or not to listen to Infinite when it came out.

In the last decade, there have been numerous scandals featuring the likes of Chris Brown, Tim Lambesis, to the almost twenty-year outrage at R. Kelly, which has recently resurfaced. The question constantly gets brought up: can you, or should you separate the art from the artist? Let’s first look at some artists and their crimes/unsavoury acts.

Look at the life of Pablo. Pretty much everyone regards Picasso a genius and applauds his vision. However, his granddaughter Marina knew of a different Pablo, one who was incapable of showing love to his family and love interests. “He needed blood to sign each of his paintings: my father’s blood, my brother’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and mine. He needed the blood of those who loved him.”

Françoise Gilot, the renowned artist and a former girlfriend who mothered two children with Picasso, remembered once when Picasso confessed that, “Nobody has any real importance to me.” She would later see that for herself when she and the children would be replaced and displaced by Picasso’s new interests.

Benvenuto Cellini, the celebrated Mannerist sculptor, was so beloved that he never faced punishment for his numerous murders, which he outlined in his memoir. Even when it seemed like he would face some punitive action, he had several cardinals vouch for him and he was pardoned.

The philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell wrote in Marriage and Morals (1929), “In extreme cases there can be little doubt of the superiority of one race to another… It seems on the whole fair to regard negroes as on the average inferior to white men.”

But perhaps Russell was just parroting a common viewpoint at the time, because only a few years later in Education and the Social Order (1932), he wrote that black people being inferior to white people was an “unwarranted assumption.”

We know Enid Blyton as an author of children’s books but her own daughters knew her as a shameless self-promoter who demoted her role as a mother in favour of being a businesswoman. Her daughter Imogen wrote in her autobiography, “My mother was arrogant, insecure and without a trace of maternal instinct. Her approach to life was childlike, and she could be spiteful, like a teenager.”

Rock ‘n roll pioneer Chuck Berry had numerous run-ins with the law. As a teen, he was sentenced to reform school for stealing cars and armed robbery. As an adult, he was found guilty of transporting a 14 year old girl over state lines. As a really old adult, his property was raided where weapons, weed and video tapes of women in bathrooms of his restaurant were found.

Tim Lambesis of As I Lay Dying was arrested in 2013 for attempting to hire a hitman to kill his estranged wife. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years but was out on parole since December 2016. By the way, Lambesis was and still is Christian.

Lastly, it seems like if you’re an RnB guy and your last name is Brown, try to avoid hitting women, like Chris, Bobby and James Brown had famously done.

I’ll be honest, I’ve looked at some Picassos, listened to old As I Lay Dying songs, still celebrated Bertrand Russell’s words on religion, listened to Chris Brown music that came after his assault on Rihanna and sang along to Bobby Brown features on songs. I guess you could say that I was able to separate the art from the artist, eventually.

The reason I can separate the art from the artist is because I’ve been alive long enough to know that people forget. People forget the crimes and atrocities artists committed because they never celebrated the artist as much as they did the art. Or at least, I didn’t. I knew that my love of an artist was due to their art.

Because of her creations, people love the artist. The reason anyone cares about any artist is because of what they were able to accomplish. One can certainly hate the artist and refuse to support the artist by not streaming their music or buying their books or endorsing their crafts, but you might want to leave your hate for the acts of the artist, not the artist herself.

Do you have an Apple product? Why is that? Why would you want to support Steve Jobs, a man who kicked his baby’s mother and baby out of his house, and then lied about being sterile to avoid paying child support?

Do you watch Empire? Why would you do that? Terrence Howard is a woman-beater and overall violent man. Well, that’s just one actor in a show of several actors. Fair enough. But Lee Daniels is the creator of the show and he excused Howard’s behaviour.

To me, it isn’t a question that people who commit crimes or who fail to carry out a moral responsibility should be held accountable. That’s non-debatable as no one is above the law, not even Cellini. But eventually, it is natural for one to drop resentment. And once that happens, the cognitive dissonance of whether or not to enjoy someone’s work of art starts to fade.

I get that people aren’t going to like that, and that they may in fact be somewhat invested in hating the person. I fully get that. Moreover, if these people had hurt me or anyone I knew personally, dropping my resentment would be so much harder to do. Can’t argue with that.

But because I’ve actually been hurt by someone who is an artist now, whose work I like, I know that this artist is no different from anyone else who hurt me in a similar way. I had to drop my resentment, for me. Having said that, I cannot tell anyone to drop their resentment to anyone who hurt them, directly or indirectly.

R. Kelly’s crimes are particularly outrageous and one has to question if his lyrics are linked to underage girls. That would probably be enough to short-circuit any interest I have in listening to his classics forever. But then again, does that mean I’ll never listen to “Gotham City” or “I Believe I Can Fly” again?

Ultimately, R. Kelly and anyone else who has hurt others need to repay their debt to society. We can sympathize that he and virtually everyone I listed above had some painful childhood experiences which shaped them into who they are now, but that cannot be an excuse to hurt more people. Personal responsibility is paramount.

I won’t be able to listen to any R. Kelly songs for the moment, despite the fact that constantly hearing his name makes “Down Low (Remix)” play in my head. But because I’ve fallen out of love with Michael Jackson, V.S. Naipaul and other artists before, only to refocus on the love of the art itself, I may find myself listening to R. Kelly at some point in time, whenever that may be.

Written by

Former Edu. Psychologist | Current Writer | Constant Learner | “By your stumbling the world is perfected.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store