/ 5 January 2023

Can you separate art from the world’s greatest artists?

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anye West speaks onstage during the 2022 BET Awards at Microsoft Theater on June 26, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

The debate around whether it is possible to dissociate a body of work from an artist is long-standing. Artists, musicians, fashion designers, and author’s careers have been spoiled by controversies, harmful words and guilty verdicts.

Artists currently exist in an era of ‘cancel culture’ online. This began as a medium for marginalised communities to advocate against public figures who maintain power and influence despite having committed misconduct.  

Kanye West is not his Kanye best

The 2022 downfall of Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, is the self-destruction of an American icon. Once Grammy Award-winning, outspoken confidence and dapper fashion sense gradually became egotistical grandiosity and wacky quasi-political dress up, styled by Balenciaga.

Artists can make quality art and do bad things. But there are consequences when those bad things are revealed. The artist loses the privilege of a less clouded consumption of their work.

Ye, as an outspoken Hitler sympathiser, anti-Semitic, who claims the experiences of those who were enslaved was “a choice”, got him kicked out of the fashion industry. But Ye still has 49 million monthly Spotify listeners, placing him as the 30th most listened to artist globally. Ye’s problematic tendencies lie in his right-wing political antics more than in his music, the art he is known best for.

Ye’s lyric “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is disproven after he challenged Adidas to drop him during a week of unprompted anti-Semitic comments in October 2022.

Adidas responded to Ye’s challenge and terminated the partnership with immediately.  The multinational sporting brand stopped all payments to Ye and his companies stating that it “does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech.”

Part of this equation is about who reaps the financial rewards of our attention. In the digital age, our attention matters because it is being closely monitored, monetised, and influencing boardroom decisions. 

Audiences may find it difficult to switch off Ye’s music, but big brands like Gap, JP Morgan, and CAA Talent Agency separate profit and product from the artist. West is easier to label as a toxic asset to business when social capital is highly valuable. 

According to the investment bank, Cohen Adidas says it made four to eight percent of all sales from Yeezy products. After the drop Forbes says Ye is no longer enjoys billionaire status. 

Anti-transgender words by JK Rowling

JK Rowling, author of the book series Harry Potter which spawned some of the most successful films and an entire subculture, was under fire for her 2020 anti-transgender rhetoric across twitter and lengthy essays that point to “five reasons for being worried about the new trans activism”.

After posting a tweet that says “TERF Wars”- an a cronym that stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminism – Rowling’s legacy was overshadowed by her new brand of social media commentary that erases the experiences of transgender bodies.  

The subject of the very art that made Rowling successful, Harry Potter himself played by Daniel Radcliffe, spoke out via The Trevor Project, a non-profit advocating for LGBTQIA+ youth.

“While Jo is unquestionably responsible for the course my life has taken, as someone who has been honoured to work with and continues to contribute to The Trevor Project for the last decade, […] Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people and goes against all advice given by professional health care associations who have far more expertise on this subject matter than either Jo or I,” said Radcliffe.

(Photo by Andrew Matthews / POOL / AFP)

When watching one of the Harry Potter films, audiences are not immediately compelled to think of how Rowling’s political views translate into her fantasy creation. Former Rowling fans from the LGBTQIA+ community had found comfort in the Harry Potter’s stories of an outsider finding a place where he belonged.

But it’s impossible not to think about Rowling’s conservative views after noticing the lack of diverse representation in her stories now that audiences are aware of the author’s comments that erase the identities of transgender bodies.

As social narratives shift, perhaps the method of dissociating a figure from their body of work changes. Cancel culture does not always offer the same nuance as the court of public opinion, but a binary view of a situation, between what is right and wrong.

Radcliffe continued to say, “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished. I am deeply sorry for the pain [Rowling’s] comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you…. And in my opinion, nobody can touch that. It means to you what it means to you and I hope that these comments will not taint that too much”.

Michael Jackson’s fall from kingship

Michael Jackson’s legacy asThe King of Pop” carries weight that can overshadow offences. In 1993, the Los Angeles Police Department opened a case against Jackson after young boys alleged they were sexually abused by the pop star. 

Despite the publicised 1993 trials, the 2019 documentary ‘Leaving Neverland’ – where the same boys, now adults, retell their story of abuse – presents known information as if it were new. The documentary aired ten years after Jackson’s death, who was mourned globally despite consistent public abuse allegations against him.

After the documentary aired, Oprah Winfrey interviewed the two men. 

“This transcends Michael Jackson. It is bigger than any one person. The reason the idea of any major person committing sexual abuse against children challenges so many people is because in every family, you have to face that some things are not what they appear to be”.  

With what is known about Jackson today, why is it hard to dissociate Jackson from his music? What differentiates music from other kinds of art is that the artist’s presence is known whether it’s a distinct voice, signature beat, or unique lyrical story.

Even after an artist is long dead and profits little off our attention, we still send a message to the powers that be that we’re willing to look at and appreciate work from artists who behave in certain ways. In 2022, Jackson had 32 million monthly Spotify listeners, and a special 40 year anniversary edition of Thriller was released. Does listening to the music imply support of the violent acts by Jackson? Do we turn a blind eye because we like the music?

Jackson’s legacy as the king of pop may overshadow his abusive behaviour, but on the other hand there is R. Kelly whose legacy as a convicted rapist overshadows his former music career.

Art is almost never consumed based on its own merit. There are often cues that tell us whether something is important or not. Whether the cues stem from the lore of the artist or a broader narrative, the artist’s life does not necessarily tell us why their work is worthy of kingship. 

It’s difficult to separate an artist’s work from their intention and life.The dead are not immune to our judgement.

The question is what does this say about us as humans? If people disagree whether the work of the offender is unchanged, then the choice to enjoy the music is personal. Some may be too disgusted by Jackson’s actions to listen to “Beat it” or “Man in the Mirror”, some choose to still enjoy the music while denouncing the singer.

John Galliano racist hate crimes

Fashion designer John Galliano was extremely lauded by fashion’s elite in the 1990’s. As an impoverished ‘genius’, Vogue, the best stylists, makeup artists, and models were at Galliano’s disposal, free of charge for his 1993 show. They “all understood the enormous brilliance of his work,” writes Andre Leon Talley in his memoir, The Chiffon Trenches.

Galliano was the first fashion designer to take a boring catwalk show full of clothes and make it a spectacle. No designer in the world can say they didn’t copy Galliano in some way. His legacy also lies in his time as creative director of Dior where he gave the world the iconic saddle bag and feral feminine opulence.

“The greater his success, the more spoiled he became, causing havoc because of his genius,” says Talley.

(Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

In 2011, Galliano was fired from Dior and arrested for hurling racist and anti-Semitic insults, and at a separate incident he said, “I love Hitler”. For the Dior brand, the incident was damaging. 

What figures like Ye and Galliano prove is that you, not necessarily your art, are only as valuable as the money you bring to brands and the reputation that you present.

There is typically little sympathy for offenders of odious acts, but for some reason, the fashion world forgives Galliano for literal anti-Semitic crimes, yet shuns repeat-offender Kanye West. Galliano was appointed creative director of fashion house Maison Margiela in 2014 and is still celebrated by fashion’s top media houses.

A Mail & Guardian story found that before Galliano was found guilty of anti-Semitic remarks and fined €6 000 in September 2011, he had already been accepted back into the fashion court to a certain degree when he was commissioned to design Kate Moss’s wedding dress in 2011.

Since Galliano’s quieter return to fashion, US Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour has reportedly remained a champion of the designer, which many may argue is not long enough of an exile from a position of power. It’s both about the content of the problem and the context and severity of the response that matters.

Who suffers when the artist’s work remains accessible on streaming platforms, bookshelves, and second-hand stores? But who suffers when their work is no longer part of our cultural heritage?

What these artists have in common are their paradoxical legacies: the art is good, but the person is bad. Some might find it easier to consume one’s art, by choosing to dissociate the words and actions of the artist. Each case of problematic artists is different, aside from the offence, does the work remind you of the offence or the values of the problematic creative?