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OPINION: Can We Separate Art from Artist?

Content Warning: This article contains mentions of anti-semitism

Would Starry Night be worth as much and have the widespread acclaim it receives if it wasn’t a Van Gogh painting? Whether or not you choose to separate art from artist is a personal choice, and it’s a debate that spans decades if not a century. The discussion includes conversation about the role of an artist in the art they produce, and if the artist is problematic, does that make their art problematic as well? In the digital age we find ourselves in, it’s easy to find out when a musician or celebrity has done wrong. A recent example of this is the Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion feud. When Megan released her song “Hiss,” I heard about it within the day, and when Nicki subsequently released “Big Foot,” I found out just as quickly. This is a small example of an overarching challenge we must consider. The widespread use of technology and social media makes it much easier for people to be exposed for problematic behavior, and much easier for people to find out about it. I find that after an artist has been “canceled,'' there's a wave of people who are quick to remove their music from their playlists and even go so far as to destroy physical copies of their work. Despite open backlash, there are still those who choose to continue listening to their music because they choose to separate it from the artist. 

When studying art history and art appreciation, the life of the artist is always mentioned. By knowing an artist's background, it can paint a more complete picture of the context of a piece of work. Going back to the Van Gogh example, the cheapest Van Gogh painting is worth around $160,000, but it also begs the question as to whether or not his works would be worth that much based on their merit as art pieces alone. Perhaps the story of Vincent Van Gogh himself bolsters their reputation. The truth is that the two are not always mutually exclusive. From a technical standpoint, Van Gogh had an intuitive understanding of color, line, and composition, but he also has a story that appeals to viewers and a wider audience. Van Gogh has achieved the characterization of the “tortured artist,” with many of his popular works being produced during his stay at a French asylum. His correspondence with his brother further sensationalized his artwork and contributed to his mass popularity. With this in mind, many people believe that the life of an artist and their art are intertwined and unable to be separated. This would take into consideration the life of Van Gogh while analyzing his work. Others believe that art and artist can be separated, which could lead to critiquing Van Gogh’s work purely from a technical standpoint. 

The role of the artist in the art they produce is another facet of this argument. Some believe that an artist must be involved in the process of creation from idea to final product. An example of this is DuChamp's Fountain. Many argue that it isn’t a piece of art because DuChamp had no role in creating the urinal itself. Others argue that the arrangement and choosing of the urinal was a creative choice, and that therefore, it is art. By following this logic, it would seem to dismiss the validity of mediums like collage art. This all goes back to the large overarching question of what art is. 

This becomes much more complicated when discussing equally influential artists who happened to be problematic. An example of this can be found when discussing Salvador Dali, who many may know from his painting Persistence of Memory. Dali was an instrumental figure in the surrealist movement and produced some of the most memorable images in modern art history. What you may not be aware of is that Dali was expelled from the surrealist movement according to the Salvador Dali Museum. Surrealism, in addition to being an artistic era, was also an official society of creatives who believed in communist ideology and anti-fascism; they expelled Dali for his “glorification of Hitlerian fascism” according to Medium. Dali became known for his fascination with fascist symbols post World War II and was quickly scrutinized by fellow surrealists who had a strong disdain for such symbols. For many, this detracts from his prowess as a surrealist painter and dismisses his work altogether. 

What complicates this issue even further (as if it wasn’t complicated enough) is monetization. What separates issues like Dali’s with the artists of the present is that Dali is dead. Even if you were to separate art from artist, you aren’t directly supporting Dali because he can no longer profit off of his work. However, when you listen to Kanye West on Spotify, you are actively giving him money. The issue of separating art and artist hasn’t become so complex until the past decade, purely because of monetization. In the past, if you had a physical copy of music from an artist who had just been exposed for problematic behavior, you could continue listening to that CD or vinyl without further financially supporting the artist. Nowadays, with streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, listening to an artist’s music puts money in their pockets. A song with a million streams on Spotify makes around $4,000-$7,000 for the artist. This brings forth a more moral issue within this debate. The issue is difficult because the art remains relatively unaffected. Persistence of Memory didn’t change shape after Dali became enamored with fascism, just like the song Ultralight Beam didn’t change lyrics while Kanye was making antisemitic remarks. Art is a reflection of the artist, and having that context can change your interpretation of that art. 

In my opinion, separating art from artists would, more often than not, eliminate much of the meaning and symbolism of their art. Van Gogh’s Starry Night wouldn’t hold the same gravity if we didn’t know that it was created during Van Gogh’s stay in Saint Remy’s Asylum. Art, in my opinion, is how people communicate. Separating an artist from their art would eliminate the message. The appeal of Starry Night is that it places us in the perspective of Van Gogh, who was struggling with his mental health, looking out of his asylum window and finding something beautiful enough to paint. It appeals to our shared sense of humanity, and without Van Gogh’s story behind it, it wouldn’t hold the same impact. Even with artists like Dali, while I renounce all of his views, you can’t remove the experiences of the artist from their art. Surrealism, including Persistence of Memory, was nonsensical as a way to process the horrors of World War 2. To remove Dali from Persistence of Memory would remove important historical context as well. In addition to this, to view art solely as a piece of work with no context would perpetuate elitism. To separate artists' meaning would leave interpretation up to affluent art critics whose idea of what art is doesn’t compare to that of the everyday viewer. This even applies to current day musicians; to separate Dolly Parton from Coat of Many Colors for example, would not take into account her personal connection to the song. Personally, I try to avoid streaming the music of artists who have done things I disagree with because of the issue of monetization. Although I can recognize that a song doesn’t change because of the actions of the artist, if an artist is still alive, they can profit from my engagement which I would like to avoid. In the past, it may have been easier to disengage with an artist due to the use of physical copies of music, but in the digital age we find ourselves in now, by listening to an artist's music, you are directly supporting them in a financial manner.

By Liese Devine, Features Editor



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