The Arts V.s. the Artist: Should We Consume Art by Immoral Artists?

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.

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