Do Artists with seriously questionable morals deserve fame?

By Talia Klein Perez
 G. Stroud /D. McNew /handout /C. Alvarez
*Updated 2018
Every time an artist of any stripe is accused of abuse, crime or immorality, the question is re-asked: should we separate an artist’s accomplishments from his person? From Bill Cosby’s recent retrial guilty verdict to Roman Polanski’s growing line of sexual abuse accusers, the problem of enjoying the art produced by someone whose acts you abhor keeps rearing its head. Does “Shakespeare In Love” deserve less love since you learned of its producer, Harvey Weinstein’s, sordid behavior? Is “House of Cards” less interesting or “American Beauty” less beautiful because of Kevin Spacey’s alleged deeds?
Here are three reasons why we should separate an artist’s character from his art and three reasons why we shouldn’t.


Art Lives Separately From The Artist That Created It.


We would be giving up on a considerable amount of great art

If we start to investigate the private lives of every artist, there’d be much less artwork left. It’s as much a part of human nature to sin and cause suffering as it is to love and express creativity. After all, Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite, the painter Caravaggio was allegedly a murderer and Charles Dickens took a teenage lover. The most recent example is Bill Cosby, whose contribution to television and the positive portrayal of African American families is immeasurable. However, he’s been found guilty in his retrial of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his Philadelphia home in 2004. There’s no question that this disturbing, but should his contribution to the bettering of society be ignored due to this verdict? We have to separate the artist from their art because if we don’t, we’ll be missing some great art.


Rejecting art leads to censorship

You might feel moral and high-minded for rejecting the movies of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and anything produced by Harvey Weinstein, but throwing out art because we disapprove of the artist is the thin end of the wedge. To reject the artwork for any reason other than its artistic merit resonates of censorship. Given that different people have different sensitivities, once you permit any censorship you don’t know where it will end. Besides, the standards of moral decency change over the centuries. What was once acceptable can become unbearable, and vice versa. (Let’s not forget that 12 American presidents were slave-owners). Holding art to the standards of a fictional ‘common decency’ is too simplistic.


Art stands alone

Art should be separated from the artist’s character because it stands on its own. Many people enjoy listening to the music of Kanye West even though they find his opinions distasteful, or appreciate movies starring Mel Gibson despite their disgust for his apparent anti-Semitism. Music and movies are not affected by the personal opinions or even the actions of their creators. If you go to a museum and you are moved by a painting by Picasso, does it become less moving if you know it was painted by a man who was abusive to his wives? Even Martin Luther King’s known adultery didn’t undermine the power and pathos of his oratory. Perhaps we need artists to live the tortured lives of self-destruction which produce great art — but in that case, we have no right to disown them when they manifest the darkness that so fascinates us.


Why Immoral People Don’t Deserve Fame For Their Art.  


It’s unethical to the victims

Celebrating the art of someone accused (or guilty) of abuse of any sort sends the message of caring more for the artist than for their victim(s). This is especially true when both artist and victim are still alive. Woody Allen’s daughter Dylan, who claims that Allen molested her, recently wrote an open letter expressing her pain that Allen was honored by people who know what he did to her. Let’s also remember that, besides the victor in Bill Cosby’s retrial, dozens other women had separately accused him of sexual assault. Though on a much different scale than Cosby, comedian Louis C.K. also has a list of victims he exposed to sexual harassment, who deserve consideration before contemplating a potential comeback. And let’s not forget Matt Lauer, either. So, watching a TV show, or paying to watch a movie, enter an exhibition or download a song inevitably means giving certain artists money and recognition that they don’t deserve.


Art is too personal to be separated from the artist

It’s impossible to separate their artwork from artists’ lives because the artwork is shaped and molded by their experiences and actions, by what they value and what they reject. Without knowing the artist’s personal life, we miss out on an entire level of understanding of their art and symbolic references. For example, without knowing the real history of the Marquis de Sade, all his stories are just adolescent fantasies. An artist and his art are inextricably linked, a connection that artists profit from. Therefore, it stands to reason that when an artist devalues norms of society, their art loss its value as well.


It glorifies their illegal actions

Ignoring artists’ wrongdoings gives them legitimacy to continue their unethical and illegal actions. On a smaller scale, we might glorify a Rock ‘n’ Roll lifestyle that teens will emulate as a result, but this debate doesn’t stop at trashing hotel rooms. As long as rapists, racists and murderers are still being lauded for their work, and artists keep getting the recognition they want, then we, as a society, will be paving the path for others to do the same. If we stop consuming art by abusers, perhaps other artists will think twice before doing something illegal or behaving unethically.


Bottom line: Should art be enjoyed as a separate entity from the artist or are an artist and his art indistinguishably linked? Next time you learn of a scandal that tarnishes a beloved artist’s legacy, will it change their art in your eyes?

picture credits: Getty/ George Stroud /David McNew /handout /Carlos Alvarez
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