Can we truly separate the art from the artist?

In our era of internet communication, scrutiny of celebrity behavior has increased exponentially; one can hardly go two days without witnessing some new celebrity scandal splashed all over every major news source and social media platform. This proximity to the inner lives of celebrities and public figures has never been witnessed before, and it has produced interesting byproducts related to questions of what media we consume. 

Upon finding out that one of our favorite celebrities—whether they’re an author, singer or actor—has committed some act which is unfavorable to our current societal standards, it is a common reaction to wonder whether it is still ethical to consume the media that they produce. There are several prominent examples of this, including J.K. Rowling, the once-beloved author of the “Harry Potter” series. According to Glamour, she has peddled transphobic rhetoric on her social media accounts for years, sympathizing with known transphobes as well as writing about her own thoughts on sex- and gender-related issues on her own website. These comments have been widely identified as discriminatory and transphobic, and have led many of her former fans to not only denounce her but to refuse to support her work any longer.

Similar movements have occurred regarding many other artists as well, including the recent controversy surrounding Kanye West, known professionally as Ye, who has recently doubled down on previous anti-Semitic comments that he made on social media and in news interviews, according to CNN. Not only has West lost widespread fan support, but also a number of professional contracts with companies such as Adidas, according to The Guardian

Whether this controversy surrounds one of your most beloved childhood authors or a musical artist whose songs you can’t get enough of, one thing is clear: Bigotry is intolerable and must not be supported in any way. This is much of the reason that when an artist reveals their bigoted tendencies, the default reaction by many is to stop purchasing and supporting their work. This is the morally correct thing to do. We must strive to stop financially supporting celebrities who promote discriminatory rhetoric. Celebrities’ words have real-life consequences, and to be bigoted and perpetuate notions about historically marginalized communities, such as transgender people and Jewish people, further legitimizes these opinions in the minds of people who may already subscribe to these beliefs. When people are emboldened by this legitimization, it can lead to actual, physical harm on marginalized communities. For example, according to Fox News, the man who carried out a mass shooting in Buffalo, NY, this year cited Tucker Carlson in his manifesto, which embraced the dangerous “great replacement” conspiracy theory. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, his theory suggests that white people are quickly being replaced, culturally and demographically, by non-white people. Carlson has widely been accused of pushing elements of this conspiracy theory on his television show, and this is just one example of the real-life consequences of public bigotry.

Therefore, it is effective to boycott and stop financially supporting artists whose values are misaligned with ours. In fact, it is our responsibility, as ethical consumers, to do so. It is, in many ways, impossible to remove the context of the author from the art that they create. Art does not exist in a vacuum—it is always a product of the social context under which it was produced, and even though bigotry may not visibly appear in the art produced by bigoted artists, its legacy will always bleed through. The art and the artist are wholly inseparable, and it is our job as moral, ethical people to avoid supporting people who push bigoted rhetoric, even if it may rob us of the art that we hold near and dear to us.

While it can be effective to remove monetary support in these situations, we must also ensure that works of art, especially those that have been societally consequential, are not fully censored. If such a thing can be done without harm to minority groups, even works of art that have origins in bigotry should be kept uncensored for the purpose of being examined and nothing else. For example, media like racist manifestos, as in the case of the Buffalo mass shooter, should undoubtedly be kept censored, as they are actively harmful and violent. However, pieces of media which are bigoted in more subtle, less physically violent methods should be studied for their impact on society. This will ensure that future generations can learn how racism and harmful ideologies can be perpetuated and normalized in media, and how they ultimately affect society. Without knowing the mistakes of those who came before us, it is difficult not to reproduce them and recognize the warning signs ahead of time.

Such a thing may be difficult to reconcile, but is definitely possible. For example, many people probably still have copies of the “Harry Potter” books and movies around their house, and they were probably an important part of growing up in the early 2000s. In fact, according to Forbes, “Harry Potter” is the number-one best-selling book series in history. Its impact on culture is undeniable. To deny it would be to refute the fact that a known transphobe can and did climb her way up to one of the highest cultural profiles in the world. She did so because we made it possible, and in order to ensure that society does not repeat this mistake, we must study how it was done in the first place; what elements of our culture and society allow bigotry to prosper? An important part of this is studying their art, and while we must endeavor to remove all future monetary support to the artistic efforts of bigots after their bigotry is uncovered, we cannot un-spend the money or reverse the cultural impact of many of these artists. Instead, we must take care to denounce their beliefs at every level, remove all future monetary support and learn from the mistakes of the past so we are never doomed to repeat them again.


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