Should We Separate the Art From the Artist?
In the 21st century, it's never been harder to separate the art from the artist - but should we do this, and at what cost?
I remember the moment I thought, “we need more separation between the artist and the art.” Predictably, it happened on Facebook. The scene: a discussion group dedicated to analyzing the lyrics of one of my favourite bands, which we’ll call The Andys. The instigating event: someone wrote a thoughtful post comparing a song by The Andys to another song by Brand New, a band whose lead singer, Jesse Lacey, was recently accused of sexual abuse.
The first commenter wrote, “Jesse Lacey is an abuser. Please take this post down immediately,” as if just mentioning it discredited everything contained in the song, rendering it not just bad, but unworthy of any thought or analysis. As if the story of Brand New’s music starts and ends with the statement, “Jesse Lacey is an abuser.” Dozens of similar posts followed. More disturbingly, the few people defending the song somehow slipped into defending Lacey’s actions, as if not sure where the music stopped and the person began. As I read through the comments, I felt myself slip into the same mental state, judging Jesse Lacey for his crimes as if their severity determined the value of his songs.
I’m sympathetic to the people who reject the separation of the art from the artist, because… well, doing it feels kind of wrong. Rejecting a musician while celebrating their music creates cognitive dissonance. When I’m at a party and a Michael Jackson song starts playing, I wonder whether or not I should dance, but recently I’ve been questioning why it feels wrong.
According to many of my friends and the publications I read, the personal experiences of artists create a context in which we can interpret their art. In order to understand art, we need to think about the person who made the art: his worldview, his experiences, his identity. After all, what is art except a reflection of the person who made it? Of course, I feel uncomfortable dancing to Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson’s songs are a reflection of his personality, and everyone knows he did terrible things.
"Creating a one-to-one correspondence between an artist and his work dismisses the thousands of other valid stories you can tell about the music."
I don’t think that’s incorrect, but I do think it’s a simplistic way to view art. It’s not bad to relate an artist’s life story to their work – it provides context, a meta-story that helps listeners appreciate the art on a different level. And it is important to consider the ways in which an artist’s racist or misogynistic views might seep into their work. But creating a one-to-one correspondence between an artist and his work dismisses the thousands of other valid stories you can tell about the music. Stories about how, for example, Michael Jackson’s work comes from to the people who inspired and influenced him, the music industry machine, and American pop music culture just as much as it comes from the man himself.
Interpreting an album like Thriller as the product of a single musician with a unique vision ignores how musicians’ collaborative process, music history, cultural trends, and the pop art form itself transcend any one individual person – even a person as larger-than-life as Michael Jackson. I’ve begun to see the inseparability of art and artists as a consequence of how our culture treats art as the property of a single creator, and, more generally, the result of American culture’s celebration of individualism over collectivism. Maybe I feel uncomfortable dancing to Michael Jackson not because of the inherent connection between Jackson’s personal life and his music, but because the music industry exaggerated and emphasized that connection.
And, why wouldn’t they? That’s how most music is presented to fans and critics. A recent advertisement for Ariana Grande’s album thank u, next included a tweet in which Ariana confessed to “sitting here sobbin” while listening to a new song. In a promotional interview for Billboard, Ariana Grande’s quoted saying “[making the album] was a big risk and a very scary thing to do because it is my life… at the end of the day, these are people and relationships. It's real shit to me.” That particular quote at the top of the article, framed as the key to understanding the music. But this is only one of many possible ways to frame thank u, next, and it’s not sufficient to fully understand and appreciate the album. Does the album delve into Ariana’s past relationships? Yes. Is it personal? Yes. But, there are also dozens of co-writers credited on many of the songs, and, by all accounts, the process of writing “thank u, next” was highly collaborative. Even if most of the ideas for songs came from Ariana, her co-writers came up with many of the central metaphors used to express those feelings. You can hear the influence of other popular artists and genres, from Beyonce to emo trap, all over the album. When all the production, mixing and mastering is done, the record has benefitted from the creative energies of dozens of artists and drawn inspiration from hundreds more. thank u, next is a reflection of Ariana’s personal life, but it’s also a product of the culture and in that way, it belongs to everyone. It contains and expands on musical ideas with the life and history independent of any one person. There are many stories we can tell about thank u, next, and not all of them need to include Ariana Grande.
Over and over, music promoters ask listeners to believe an album or song encapsulates all the unvarnished feelings of its creator. When suddenly the media reveals that the music doesn’t tell the whole story – that despite all the innocent-sounding pop songs, Michael Jackson sexually preyed on children – it’s a new, contradictory message, one that feels like betrayal. Maybe you’d re-interpret all of the love songs as creepy and abusive. Maybe you’d deny Michael Jackson ever abused anyone. (You might say, “How could someone who wrote those songs do that?”) Either way, you’d feel compelled to make the story of Michael Jackson’s life match up with the story of his music.
We get caught up in the way art reflects the lives of the creators we either love to love or love to hate. We forget that music reflects cultural trends and channels universal emotions as much, if not more, than any one person’s individual experiences. Up until now, I’ve talked broadly about the culture that encourages fans to see art as a direct representation of the artist’s life. I’ve ignored a personal reason many people struggle to separate the art from the artist, namely, trauma. If I was a victim of R Kelly, or Jesse Lacey, or XXXTentacion, there is no way I’d be able to “separate the art from the artist.” For survivors of abuse, most things related to an abuser become conduits for bad memories.
Let me back up a second. At the end of 2018, I created a “Best Songs of the Year” list (and, of course, I posted it on the internet). Brand New’s song “It Lit Me Up” topped that list. After I wrote a short blurb analyzing the song, I confessed that I’d spent much of the last month angry at and disgusted with Jesse Lacey. I voiced my support for people who can’t listen to and appreciate the music because it’s associated too closely with traumatic memories. I tell my followers I won’t be attending any Brand New concerts in the future. But, it didn’t feel like enough. A little voice whispered to me, You’re on the wrong side of history. It took me another six months to realize where that voice came from.
To support survivors of abuse, I felt like I needed to share their trauma. I felt pressured to react to Brand New’s music the same way Lacey’s victims react to his music. But, in all honesty, I felt lucky that my experiences with Brand New’s songs weren’t consumed by bad memories of sexual abuse. I was glad I wasn’t triggered by something I could have loved, and I felt guilty for feeling glad.
Like a lot of people, I have internalized trauma about certain things. Trauma flattens the world. It won’t let me see the good in things, even when I intellectually know that good exists. It blinds people to all but one of the many stories contained in a piece of art. To respect other people’s trauma, you do not need to share it – that’s like blinding yourself out of sympathy for someone else’s blindness.
“When you run onto the dancefloor to dance to a Michael Jackson song, you should know everything you’re running towards.”
Completely separating the art from the artist is counterproductive and probably impossible. I’m all for conscious consumption, for carefully choosing which artists to financially support, for staying aware of abusive artists and consider how their actions may influence their work. As critic Wesley Morris put it, “when you run onto the dancefloor to dance to a Michael Jackson song,” you should “know everything you’re running towards.” That said, condemning an artist’s actions doesn’t prevent you from liking that person’s music. Music transcends any one person’s biography.
Illustration: Seb Westcott