Separating art from the artist debate misses the mark
It’s time we acknowledge fans just don’t care about the past and present of their favourite artists.
by Shae De Pass
Content Warning: this article contains discussions of abuse and sexual assault
The “separating art from the artist” debate – which is usually mentioned in light of celebrity wrongdoing – is nothing new. However, it seems to come up more often as we are constantly exposed to the intimate life details of celebrities. Assault allegations, whether they be about sexual or domestic violence, are often ignored and/or accepted – a fact made clear by the failure of ‘cancel culture’. Vices are quickly swept away without tarnishing legacies, especially when the celebrities are men.
An individual’s talent or art is influenced by the world and people around them. In the explosive 2019 documentary, “Surviving R. Kelly,” people who weren’t already aware of Kelly’s track record, or who had managed to ignore it learned that the majority of his music was about the underage women he continuously abused and degraded. Even before this came to light, it was commonly known that Kelly had sexually abused minors and yet he continued to have a solid career for years. It wasn’t until his money ran low and he couldn’t pay off his enablers that his career was destroyed, and he was finally convicted.
Similarly, Woody Allen – who infamously married his adopted daughter and abused his younger children – has a history of writing and directing films based around an older man falling in love with a younger, sometimes underaged woman. Such is the premise of his positively received film ‘Manhattan,’ in which his middle-aged character dates a 17-year-old girl, a character who was portrayed by an actual teenager at the time. Still, with widespread knowledge of how much films like these reflect his own life, Allen continues to make art with some of the most celebrated actors in Hollywood.
The focus shouldn’t be whether or not they can be successfully separated, but rather how their support systems allow them to continually cause harm and profit from it. These creators are allowed to continue making art – and having it celebrated – because they are abetted by others with monetary influence as well as their fans. Before social media, it was easier for fanbases to ignore or deny the allegations against their favourite artists. But times have changed, and as evidence becomes more available, loyal supporters have been forced to change their responses to openly admitting they don’t care, as was seen before and after the untimely passing of Jahseh Onfroy, better known by his stage name xxxtentacion.
Artists can successfully abuse and encourage abuse because of their low regard for those they consider powerless, usually women but especially Black women. It is a sentiment that is shared by those who engage with them, giving artists the power to further harm.
When news of Saweetie and Quavo splitting included the deliberate leak of elevator footage showing the Migos star shoving his now ex to the ground without any remorse. Men everywhere – famous or not – jumped on social media to defend his actions and express how much they thought she deserved it. Some have even blamed Saweetie for the altercation and claimed it is an attack on Black men.
It’s worth mentioning that all three members of Migos have now had their own scandal – Offset’s serial cheating, Quavo’s recent domestic abuse/cheating, and Takeoff’s rape allegations – that has had little effect on their earnings and image. The truth is an artist’s legacy will rarely be tarnished as long as they are consistently enabled by those around them. Whether inside or outside of Hollywood, abusers are held up by their friends who may be either accomplices or abusers themselves.
And as long as they are willing to look past each other’s indiscretions, they can persuade others to accept their narrative too, even without having to say a word. Derrick Rose isn’t remembered for showing up in the middle of the night with his friends to a woman’s house and assaulting her, but instead for his weak, career-straining ankles.
It’s time we acknowledge fans just don’t care about the past and present of their favourite artists. Instead of engaging with folks about how problematic their faves are, we should distance ourselves from them altogether. This is not because the issues aren’t worth talking about but because the responses to said issues tell us all we need to know. These discussions are often overrun by gaslighters and engaging in conversations such as these can be triggering to survivors of abuse; victims don’t have the luxury of escaping harassment or forgetting their trauma because they are constantly reminded of how little their stories matter when it comes to seeking justice.
Maybe the wisest thing we can do is to stop giving these creators our attention and put our energy into supporting survivors. Empowering those who have been disregarded and letting them know they are seen is a better strategy than debating whether or not we think art can be separated from those who create it. By now we should know it can’t.
Shae De Pass is a post-graduate research student and writer from Toronto, Canada passionate about the intersections of race, gender and culture.