Separating Art From Artist
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
by Tessa H
If you commit a crime after your art has become popular, are you any different to if your reputation is first and foremost for being a criminal? If a convicted murderer began to make incredible art from their cell, would we praise them?
Since Year 7, I have been a fan of both Hank and John Green. I'm a nerd. This, of course means, I have read The Fault In Our Stars. I decided to reread it this summer, and I reflected on the metadrama - 'An Imperial Affliction' and it's fictitious author, Peter Van Houten. Hazel and Gus idolise this AIA, but when given the chance to meet its author, the ugly truth of his psyche is revealed, which places a permanent stain on their admiration.
I realised that in real life, especially recently, similar revelations have caused disillusionment with many notable figures, and the public's reaction to them, as with many things, was mixed. My question was: should we cease to glorify an artwork if its artist commits a crime? Does the answer to this change based on the volume of people that the art has enriched the lives of? How bad must the crime be?
To begin, I wanted to make an example of a real life instance of this happening. With the current cancel-culture, I had a wealth of examples, but to me, the obvious case study was JK Rowling.
Rowling. The author is already wildly rich. If we stop buying Harry Potter and Harry Potter merchandise, this won't be a great blow to her. While I know that many have fled the fandom, I also know that this side of fanfic (fictional side-stories written by those in a fandom) sites has not slowed, instead, adopting the tag 'the author does not support she who must not be named'. I also know that the Harry Potter Studio Tour hasn't risked collapse since Rowling's behaviour. While the latter might only serve as evidence of the unfortunate existence of transphobes, the former shows that a majority of fans are more invested in the potential of Harry Potter as a public entity from which to draw inspiration, than the series' roots. In this case, I realised that JK Rowling will not suffer from the loss of her fans, however the loss of her books may cause fans to suffer; a whole universe to escape to banished behind bars of their own creation.
In this case, the offence was found out by the general public after Rowling became famous. But a sub-plotline in Wes Anderson's 'The French Dispatch' asks this question; if you commit a crime after your art has become popular, are you - or are you viewed - any different to if your reputation is first and foremost for being a criminal. If a convicted murderer began to make incredible art from their cell, would we praise them? This movie argues (somewhat satirically) that yes, art can be appreciated without consulting the context through which it was made.
Our English education, however, disagrees. A major part of every GCSE mark scheme is Assessment Objective 3, which can be summed up by this phrase: 'link to the context of the setting and experiences of the author'. We are told that what we create is always a product of our upbringing, and so a critic must always describe it as such.
On the other hand, the whole concept of 'celebrity' relies on an audience appreciating the star just as much separately of their work as in conjunction with it. With actors, for example, our admiration for them grows through the film they are in, but this spurs us into following and loving them as their career continues.
However, one could argue that celebrities are a sort of art within themselves, as this popularity the fans' appreciation is built on branding and appearance. Richard Dyer is a media theorist, who proposed this paradox: 'an idol is both ordinary and extraordinary'. He implies that all celebrities live in a sort of limbo in fans minds, between their reality and their branding.
In conclusion, I believe that separation of art from artist has to vary, both from one audience member to the next, and on a case by case basis. It depends on the person. For some people, food is ruined the second something 'unseemly' is brought up at the table, for others, enjoyment can be smoothly compartmentalised and for some, you couldn't tear them away from their food if you tried.