Writing by Rose Fox. Artwork by Kate Granholm (@katesartthings).
Art, perhaps at its most fundamental form, is an exercise in the subjective. Therefore, to speak
of the separation of art and the artist, to begin an analysis into the ethics of creation, be it
literary, painterly or otherwise, seems a moralisation that some might deem mere academic
pedantry. To argue that we cannot read, study or enjoy the works of those artists and creatives
who have been dubbed socially reprehensible or politically distasteful is a facet of contemporary
criticism which many suggest isolate the true meaning of art from both itself and its audience.
As Oscar Wilde once said ‘there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book (‘book’
intended here to be interchangeable with ‘art’). Books are well written, or badly written. That is
And yet, Wilde’s assertion of the amorality of art is somehow unsatisfactory. Aestheticism, the
19th century movement which advocated for the aesthetic value of art over any social or political
obligation, and its proponents would likely have responded to the question of separating art from
artist with sardonic derision - declaring themselves to be entirely uninterested in the moral
posturings of the pseudo-intellectual. This kind of formalist approach, in which we assess the
value of something purely by examining its content over any concern for authorial intention or
context, certainly has some merit. One cannot deny that oftentimes, when viewing a piece of art
with no prior knowledge of who is responsible for it our perception of it can be entirely different
than when we do have an understanding of the creator. If we were to approach, say, JK
Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ from a Formalist perspective, the text itself would conclude itself to be
generally inoffensive. It is just a story about magic and schoolchildren, what could be so awful
about that? However, the cultural response and criticism should not be rejected, nor should the
political implications of allowing someone such as JK Rowling to retain a legacy of such prestige
unperturbed by her views on Trans people.
That something feels ‘wrong’, such as listening to a song by Michael Jackson on the radio whilst
being aware of accusations of sexual assault lodged against him, might read a little too inchoate
or whimsical. However, ‘feeling’ is the very foundation behind the experience of all art. If we
declare art to be autonomous from its creators I fear we are erasing an entire mass of
substance and implication. Modern socio-political landscapes demand context, for they are built
upon years and years of past mistakes, traditions, colonial and imperial legacies, the shaping
and reshaping of society. Furthermore, for many contexts are of paramount importance, an
awareness of ‘who’ they are reading when they pick up a book holds great significance for those
who have existed as marginalised communities for thousands of years. For example, the
reclamation of a cultural voice demands an understanding of whose voice that is, whose
shoulders they stand upon, whose legacy one is upholding or challenging.
So much of the debate surrounding whether or not we should separate the art from the artist
relies on context and individual agency. The art we choose to consume and engage with is, at
the end of the day, a choice that one has the right to make. Though we can discuss the bounds
of the morality of art, whether art really is ‘moral’ and whether by association of listening to or
enjoying ‘immoral’ art we ourselves become in some way complicit with the immorality of the
artist, the ultimate decision I would argue is reached is that, it remains a personal choice. To
many, that might seem lazy; lazy in the sense that it fails to interrogate fully the question at
hand. However, I would argue that, having interrogated fully the question of artistic separation,
this very conclusion is the one that is necessarily drawn. We simply cannot give a definite
answer, art cannot be constrained by the binaries of a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and neither can the
agency of the audience or viewer.
We can deploy the praxis of each philosophical lens and condemn and berate and still, the
clause remains, we have free will and though I argue heartily in favour of an informed
participation in the arts - to suggest that the individual should be prevented from reading a
particular book verges on the bounds of censorship which makes me distinctly uncomfortable.
That is not to say that these people should be platformed, nor should they have entire galleries
and auditoriums and racks in bookshops set aside for them. Not at all, in fact quite the opposite,
they should be sidelined in favour of raising the voices of those who have been pressed into the
margins in the interests of levying the historically white agenda of the arts.
I am of the opinion that, much as one might try, separating the art from the artist is an agenda
which serves no practical purpose. Though we can theorise and discuss how contextual
analysis serves to ‘undeliver us from the consummatory contentments of actual art works’ (1),
there is a gap between theory and practice which has become too wide. The real-world
consequences of overlooking someone’s ethically dubious practices or beliefs take precedent
over the grumblings of those who vouch for free speech, yet, in the same breath, demand
silence from those who speak up about issues they hold. I myself have had my fair share of
nasty realisations of those individuals who I had previously held to be ‘greats’, Plath’s antisemitism for one, but the questions we ask ourselves before we begin to commune with the
work of these artists are equally as important as the crimes or misdemeanours they have
committed. We must consume with our eyes wide open and empathetically. We must make
conscious and deliberate choices, but ultimately, they are our choices.
1 Grossman, Morris. “Art and Morality: On the Ambiguity of a Distinction.” The Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism32, no. 1 (1973): 103–6. https://doi.org/10.2307/428708.