Should We Separate the Art From the Artist? 

Student commentary

By Max Nokes / Contributor || Edited by Eleonora Prior 

We see a new era of the internet, now that the world is trying to live post-pandemic. Filled with cancel culture, mass consumption, and immense accessibility, the internet has become an overwhelming place. And the world of music has definitely been affected by this new internet age as well. We have seen new artists emerge into the scene thanks to apps like Tik Tok, the return of live concerts and festivals, popular artists being able to release new music now that the pandemic gave them the opportunity to write at home, and so much more. On the outside, the music world is getting back to normal and some artists are becoming more popular than ever. On the other side, the music world has seen a new increase in toxic environments and fans online.  

One of the biggest examples of this new toxic culture in the music world can be seen with the recurrent phrase, “separating the art from the artist.” So what does this phrase mean? “Separating the art from the artist” is the concept that refers to the idea of appreciating a piece of artwork, such as a book, movie, or music, separately from the creator’s personal life or behavior. This is often done in an effort to avoid moral judgments from clouding one’s enjoyment or understanding of a particular work. This phrase has been used quite frequently with many popular artists being the subject of controversy because of something they said or supported. These artists go into the spotlight of “separating the art from the artist” debate, which sparks online toxicity and chaos. This spotlight on artists often leads them to a path of cancellation.  

Since the pandemic, this phrase has increased in conversation and in usage, mainly due to its often affiliation with cancel culture. Cancel culture refers to where individuals or groups call for the public shunning, boycott, or removal of someone from their position or platform due to their problematic or controversial statements, actions, or beliefs. This can be done through social media campaigns, petitions, and other forms of public pressure. Cancel culture was often associated with social justice activism and anything political, but now has meandered to other types of media. Back to the topic of “separating the art from the artist,” who are some musicians that have been under this spotlight? Artists like Rex Orange County, Morgan Wallen, and Kanye West have been recent cases that come to mind of this phrase. Even artists like John Lennon, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, and other musicians who’ve passed away are now in this debate. More and more artists across genres are put into this debatable position, but why? Well a lot of artists that are put in the position of “the separation” is due to cancel culture. Cancel culture has become such a phenomenon in online culture that people are willing to find any reason to cancel an artist, dead or alive.  

Let’s look at Kanye West, for example. West’s recent actions and statements, which root in antisemitism and hate, shine a huge negative light on the rapper. But many struggle, or just continue to listen to his music due to his already massive influence and status as a musician. For many, it’s hard  to simply stop listening to their favorite songs, which happen to be songs from West. William Liu’s opinion piece on Kanye West on The Bradford describes this situation well.

 “Many have opined that it is simply impossible to avoid having an artist’s biography influence one’s appreciation of their work, that an artist and their art cannot be viewed separately since art is always a reflection of the artist themselves,” says Liu.   

Another example with an artist from the past, can be Michael Jackson. Though regarded as one of the greatest entertainers in the world, Michael Jackson also was the subject of many controversies still talked about today, years after his passing in 2009. Many separate controversies and allegations from their minds to still enjoy Jackson’s music. Both artists, West and Jackson are key figures when it comes to the history of pop and rap, but yet their actions leave a heavy mark that leaves them looking more like villains than heroes. And with cancel culture becoming more common in today’s online culture, many people who follow cancel culture will do whatever to stop supporting these artists as well as shame the people who listen to them  

The concept of separating the art from the artist has been controversial, with some arguing that it is impossible to separate an artwork from its creator’s personal life or beliefs, and that doing so may minimize the impact of their actions. Others argue that art should be judged on its own merits, and that the personal life of the artist should not necessarily influence our appreciation of their work. The whole argument over “separating the art from the artist” is so massive in its being debatable that it all matters on the artist and their actions that occur. In my opinion it’s important to acknowledge the importance and influence of artists, but if they have truly done terrible things, we should not give these artists any more of our support or money.  

This phrase can be both possible and impossible depending on the circumstances. The degree to which the two can be separated largely depends on whether the artist’s actions were significantly influenced by their art. And if that is the case, that can begin a whole new rabbit hole of complex questions. Monetization complicates matters as it becomes challenging to reconcile moral values with artistic appreciation. It is possible to actively avoid streaming music by artists who have committed actions that conflict with our moral beliefs, such as Kanye West, or Michael Jackson, as it ultimately benefits them financially. However, we can still acknowledge the impact their work has had on the art form and society as a whole. While it is important to recognize their wrongdoing, ignoring it entirely is not the answer. These artists’ contributions to the music industry paved the way for newer artists to learn from their mistakes and evolve. For instance, Elvis Presley’s relationship with his wife Priscilla when she was only 14 years old is wrong, or John Lennon’s troubled relationship with his first wife and son, or Justin Bieber’s usage of discriminatory words and many other apologies, it would be a mistake to overlook their impact on the music industry. Acknowledging these complexities and striving to learn from them allows for growth and evolution within the art world. 

So, can you still listen to some artists that have been in this topic of “separating the art from the artist?” Ultimately, the decision to consume art, be it movies, TV shows, or music, rests with the individual. While I personally struggle to listen to music by artists whose actions I condemn, it is not reasonable to impose these expectations on others. But, it’s important to know that cancel culture promotes more hatred and toxicity to not just the artists, but fans and the overall online community. The power of the internet can lead to a disproportionate level of bullying and ostracization, and not everyone is subject to equal treatment under cancel culture. Given this uneven approach, do we have the right to dictate which artists should be canceled and what music should no longer be consumed? In the end, it is up to each of us to determine their personal values and whether they are willing to separate an artist’s personal actions from their art. 

Image: “Rock’n’roll No1 – Elvis Presley 1956” by oddsock is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Image: “Lennon grunge portrait” by Muffet is licensed under CC BY 2.0.