What is art?
Twyla Tharp says that art is the only way to run away without leaving home.
Art is a stimulating experience with aesthetic appeal for the viewer, and its creator is the artist. This is to say that art is what we think art is and cannot be limited to specific forms alone. Separation often refers to a clear distinction between two things, likened to severance.
However, in today's modern world where the grey dominates black and white, this is not the case. In recent times this has raised a very pertinent question: can we separate the artist and their art?
The first question that arises is: what is our moral and socio-cultural responsibility?
"Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." (Cruz, Cesar A. 1997)
This quote is often taken as the basis for art being 'stimulating' and the basis for categorizing art as good or, even, great. This has created the concept of 'aesthetic meritocracy.' However, this is not an entirely objective process, and our morals come into the picture. We have grown up with a set of values that have been passed down from the preceding generation. We have modified some of these beliefs to be more attuned to the current times. Collectively this gives us our moral compass. What we see is already altered by what we know (about the artist) because subjectivity creeps into our appreciation. We make a connection between the artwork and the origin of motivation for the artwork, thereby making the art and artist indistinguishable or rather, complementary.
This creates another dilemma: if we cannot separate the artist from their art, can we separate the consumer from the art? There is an understanding that we must connect with art and usually in turn, with the artist. The art we feel connected to more often than not makes a statement, and which is to say, the artist is making a statement. It may be argued that an artist's art is not necessarily a representation of what they believe in, and the biography of the artist can be used to provide an insight into the work. However, the life of the artist is not supposed to affect our judgment of the aesthetic value of their works (Thompson, Janna.)
Let us take the example of Adolf Hitler's paintings or Mein Kampf, once we look at or read his work we are immediately filled with a sense of disgust and hatred because we are conditioned to associate Hitler with genocide. This proves that our aesthetics and morality do have an overlap and are not independent of each other, like art and artist.
Most recently, when Kobe Bryant died there were ‘rest in peace’ messages pouring in from everywhere.
Almost no one mentioned the fact that Kobe had been accused of rape.
People forgot an entire narrative that could easily transform sympathy for Bryant’s family into rage for everyone who allowed this man to be glorified. The death of an abuser is often accompanied with flashbacks, anxiety, bursts of anger and an inability to feel safe in the world.
This isn’t to say that one can’t feel grief over Bryant’s death, but Bryant’s position in the power structure makes it important to remember the ugliness too.
Nicole Hemmer reiterates: we do not need to erase these artists and their art, but we can no longer see it as unalloyed entertainment or drama, hermetically sealed off from the "real world." The moral compromise required to view it in that way is too high.
As the last few months have continuously reminded us; we have already made enough moral compromises. Choosing to celebrate an accused artist is choosing to honor the human being they were when they made that art. As we do this, something chips away at our empathy. When one works closely with art, they are brought into contact with a wealth of outlooks and introduced to a vast range of truly differing perceptions. The opportunity to partake in such exchanges profoundly affects one's art. Engaging with art is not a solitary act, our individual engagement has actual consequences. (Eliasson, Olafur).
This may prompt a response that we must draw a line somewhere and if we were to stop consuming art because of objectionable actions, we might not be left with any art to consume at all, as skeletons in one's closets are ubiquitous thanks to media. This is where one's judgment matters the most. Everyone has different boundaries and it is up to us to decide where we put a firm stop. While making this consideration, we must not forget that artists are part of a collective whole, and everyone deserves to feel safe and free. Women's stories cannot be written in compromises, anymore. "What we do when we celebrate an artist is often to bolster the myth of their life" (BBC, 2017) and turn their actions into white noise, we can no longer hide behind such ignorance. We must be more aware of what these men have done and how it has affected their art and their colleagues, more debate over the best place for their art in our society, more opportunities for their victims and their art. This reminds one of
Salma Hayek's statement, "I was not even a person… I was a thing"
Artists create art with almost every breath, their work is admired before and after them. Art never forgets what its true meaning is, we must not either, because an artist left a part of them in that piece. Art and artists are two sides of the same coin. Each artwork has multiple truths depending on which lens we refract it through, but ultimately art is the jigsaw puzzle and the artist is the picture it reveals.
This is a step into a rabbit hole and leads to a plethora of questions like: can problematic art be created by a righteous artist? Do we question all the art we consume? Is exciting art always good? If an artist confesses to their crimes, does their guilt absolve their art? According to my understanding of the ethos of art, the art and artist are inseparable and it does not come with a parenthesis.
To conclude, to anyone who has had to deal with abuse (of any kind), has seen their abuser being glorified and put on a pedestal: I am sorry. I am sorry that we aren’t good at criticizing the people we look up to.
I am sorry you have to watch the world celebrate your abuser, no matter how little the recognition they get is. I am sorry you aren’t taken seriously. I am sorry