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Separating The Art from The Artist

Separating The Art from The Artist

By Josephine Ross—Staff Writer


I was most recently confronted with this issue last February while reading The God Delusion by author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In this non-fiction book, Dawkins refutes the idea of any type of supernatural creator, voicing his arguments in his witty, no-nonsense manner. I was curious about his other work and began to research the author himself. Google greeted me with pages of articles criticizing him for his lack of empathy towards women experiencing sexism in the first world. I was hit with that sinking feeling of profound disappointment that we’ve collectively come to know all too well. I will admit that the deception I felt was perhaps brought on by my own idolization of the author, as we are often prone to putting our favourite celebrities on a pedestal. Nevertheless, I felt deceived. I tried to reason with myself, persuade myself to let it go, finish the book. You can’t dismiss a four-hundred-page argument just because an author said some ignorant things in 2014. But when I began to think about the contents of the book in parallel with the ignorant remarks he has made about women, something didn’t sit right with me.

It was difficult take the chapter on the morality of religion seriously when Dawkins appears to completely disregard his moral compass when taking part in victim-blaming women who have suffered sexual abuse. It was also difficult to read the chapter on child abuse in the Catholic church in which he voices great empathy for those who have been mentally, physically, or sexually abused by the church whilst being dismissive of sexual harassment in the workplace and date rape on Twitter. His moral compass and the empathy he displays in his book serve his cause of turning the reader against religion; he has no such agenda when commenting on the MeToo movement. I realized why I couldn’t move on, the problem with writers is that their art is just a physical manifestation of their character.

We’ve seen this story play out many times in the last few years; When employees began to claim that Ellen DeGeneres perpetuated a toxic workplace environment, when J.K. Rowling came out as a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), or when the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein arose, we were left wondering whether it was OK to enjoy what these artists have created. However, maybe there are different degrees of how connected an artist and their work are.

In the case of Ellen DeGeneres and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the answer is simple. You can’t separate the talk show host from her talk show, of which she is the titular character and most of the segments depend on her as host. She is the show, and therefore cannot be separated from it.

The line blurs when it comes to cases like that of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. By reading Harry Potter, are you inherently supporting J.K. Rowling? Maybe financially, if you’re paying for the book, but say you get it from the library, is the act of reading it an act of support for the author? Harry Potter is arguably the most popular children’s book franchise, it is virtually inescapable, and J.K. Rowling doesn’t voice any of her transphobic values in these seven books. I would argue that it can be separated from the author, after all, the franchise has taken on an identity so far removed from the author, with eight movies, two theme parks and the Fantastic Beasts prequel series. However, Harry Potter is not J.K. Rowling’s only work. Critics spotted transphobic themes in her most recent adult novel, Troubled Blood, in which a serial-killer dresses up as a woman to pursue his victims. In this case, J.K. Rowling’s transphobic opinions physically manifest themselves in the novel and it is virtually impossible to separate her from it.

Whether or not you choose to enjoy art by a controversial creator is up to you. You must evaluate the cost of continuing to support an author, singer, painter, or any type of celebrity, and align your actions with your values. Are you supporting the artist with your dollar? Do you feel comfortable supporting this artist? Are you negatively affecting marginalized people around you through your support of this artist? If you do choose to continue enjoying a piece of art by a “cancelled” artist, the most important thing is to acknowledge their wrongdoings and continue learning more about where they went wrong.



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