Separating the Art from the Artist
“I wish I knew what to do with my life, what to do with my heart… I do nothing all day, boredom settles in, I look at the sky so I get to feel even smaller than I already feel and my mind keeps poisoning itself uselessly.”
- Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s writing has for long been a source of comfort for me and it was disappointing to find out that a writer so skilful, that had plucked thoughts out of my mind and put them into words long before I was born, had been a raging antisemite and a racist. It’s deeply disheartening to find out that the creator of a book or an album you really like is a “problematic” person in real life — they may publicly endorse politicians or political ideals diametrically opposed to your own, their actions may be in stark contrast with your values, or they just might be a criminal. In the age of cancel culture and celebrity worship, you are defined as an individual by the art you consume, and a question that is often asked is whether that art can be separated from the artist.
At first blush, the idea is nonsensical (to me, at least). Separating the science from the scientist seems much easier. No course in quantum electrodynamics is taught without a mention of Richard Feynman, but of course, any flattering anecdotes about bongo-playing can easily be replaced with, “Hey, this guy gave some great lectures on the topic and introduced some cool diagrams and the propagator but he was kind of, no, very much a misogynist and he isn’t somebody you should idolize.” But this is only easy because science contains nothing to indicate the character of the creator, whereas an artist’s work is permeated with their spirit, inundated with their experiences, and trying to pry the two apart is as anine as trying to reduce mayonnaise back to its constituent eggs and oil. I doubt it’s possible to watch Roman Polanski’s Tess, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles and have neither the sexual abuse case against him nor his self-confessed relationship with lead actress Nastassja Kinski (a minor at the time) and the parallels to the book come to mind.
Although Polanski was prosecuted way back in 1977, most other Hollywood big names that also had been abusing their notoriety were only held responsible with the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2018. The Weinstein effect, a term coined after American film producer Harvey Weinstein, is an effect where “allegations of sexual misconduct by famous or powerful men are disclosed.” Weinstein is much less of an issue (for the question at hand) as he’s more businessman, less artist, but it is true that the notion of ‘separating the art from the artist’ is usually brought up when allegations of a deplorable nature are levelled against artists and it mostly seems to be an excuse for people without any sociopolitical considerations to not change the way in which they consume the artist’s work. In India, while the #MeToo movement brought forward many people speaking out against powerful men, they were largely ignored. Allegations that were very much in the public eye led to some repercussions for the perpetrators, but everyday women working in corporate India mostly had their claims dismissed, a trend echoed by the allegations against Netflix show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.
Twitter user @ivadixit makes an important point — “That show was not just one star’s brilliance and charisma. The people whose labor made it what it was were treated horribly, and I’ve watched my friends break down from what they went through while working there,” — it’s important to remember that while a work may be associated with a few better-known artists, often the creative efforts of many, many others are also involved.
Josephine Livingstone, in conversation with Jeet Heer in this article says “[Those in favour of separating the art from the artist] wanted to undo the artist’s monopoly over the way we talk about their art. Not hand [artists] a carte blanche to be monsters! It’s about power, not behavior.” Livingstone’s main argument highlights how much a work of art can mean to people and the influence it can have on them, which is also most peoples’ issue with not separating the art from the artist — how do you let go of a book that changed your whole life, or a song that is ridiculously perfect, or a film that cheers you up every time without fail? Perhaps you don’t have to.
Returning to Sylvia Plath, this is how I’ve decided to go forward with reading her work, and the work of countless others: it’s okay to consume the art and to meditate on it and aspire to it as long as you acknowledge any problematic behaviour on the creators’ part, and ensure that your actions do not benefit them. Maybe an artist’s work is less mayonnaise and more biryani with cardamom and it remains up to you to remove the cardamom before consuming it, to tell your friends, “Hey, there’s elaichi in this biryani, and the person that made the biryani is not cool for that,” — remain mindful of how an artist’s shortcomings are reflected in their work — “and the elaichi has diffused its own flavour into the rest of the biryani but that’s okay as long as I know it’s there.”
It doesn’t have to be all rainbows or all hellfire. As far as I’m concerned, the question is redundant — it is far more important to critically interact with art than to separate it, from the creators or the consumers.