As Students of the Arts, How do We Deal with Problematic Artists?


Melissa on the difficulties with separating the artist from the work, especially in the digital age.

In our daily lives, most of us are conscious who we associate ourselves with. We do this because we pass judgement on people accused of controversial things, whether we mean to or not, and because we don’t want our names tarnished by their reputation. But we’re different when we read books, watch films, or listen to music. Often, we tend to glorify the works we like and their creators – until they get accused of controversial things too, and then suddenly we say that authors are separate from their work. There’s an ongoing argument about whether we are right to do that, and it’s one I’m not sure which side I’m on.

It isn’t an issue I’d thought of much before, until a friend mentioned they didn’t want to associate themselves with anything of William Goulding (Lord of the Flies) because he wrote in his private papers that he once attempted to rape a fourteen-year-old girl. Other people, though, argued that it was wrong to take a stance against someone who was never convicted, and that books could be appreciated regardless of who wrote them anyway. This seems to be many people’s opinion, since Goulding’s works are still widely studied in schools and universities.

In theory, it is possible to enjoy music or books without supporting where they come from.

We say ‘innocent until proven guilty’ because sometimes people are wrongly accused, so it does seem fairer to refrain from forming an opinion. At the same time, there is an argument that not taking a stance means siding against the victims, because then there is no one to support them. Recently, popular authors accused of crimes have come to see consequences, despite there being no court cases. There is James Dashner (The Maze Runner) who was dropped by Random House because of sexual harassment accusations; Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) who was dropped by his literary agents because of online harassment accusations; Junot Diaz (The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao) who has been censored in some US bookshops because of sexual misconduct allegations.

In the long term though, not everyone suffers consequences, even those who were proven guilty, and this happens in many fields. Singer Chris Brown was arrested for felony assault on Rihanna in 2009 and has committed other crimes since, yet he currently has 28,664,297 monthly listeners on Spotify, making him the 25th most listened to in the world. In theory, it is possible to enjoy music or books without supporting where they come from.

But in practice, if we buy a book or a cinema ticket, the creators will economically benefit from it. When I said this to my friends, some of them said they would just stream or read for free online, and then discuss it between themselves. Apart from this being illegal, I think the strategy itself is flawed because praising a piece of work to our friends means we are promoting it, and by extension, whoever created it. So either way, there are benefits to be found.

Nowadays, when accusations are made, the people involved blow up on social media and everyone else is quick to form an opinion.

There are instances when truly, no one cares. Vincent van Gogh, for example, is one of the most admired and influential painters in the world, although he has for example done yellow face when he reshaped his eyes in his Self-Portrait as a Bronze (1888) so they would, in his words, be ‘slightly slanting like the Japanese.’ This doesn’t impact his success today. So there are clearly divisions here; some creators go down with their works, some are considered separate from their work, and others are just revered no matter what they did.

I think a big part of it is whether those people are here to defend themselves or not. Nowadays, when accusations are made, the people involved blow up on social media and everyone else is quick to form an opinion. We also tend to have a bigger attachment to present time events, and maybe that’s why we operate on stronger ethical grounds. I know that I care much more about cultural appropriation and such today than I do about it happening over a hundred years ago, because we are more aware than we were before and so there is no excuse for those things to still be happening. The cultural significance of those works also matters. With books or art that has influenced countless people after them and maybe shaped the ways in which we view our society, I wonder if it’s really fair to dismiss them because of who created them. Sometimes, the content is more important than its source.

In the end it’s a personal choice, but what is important is to make an informed decision – whether that is prioritising the art itself, or going on a witch hunt.

by Melissa Saryazdi