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The Art, The Artist, & The Big Bad Wolf of Morality

Art, what value does it serve in our lives? There is no singular response to this. It isn’t evolutionary in its approach - like other disciplines of science and technology. It ​​does not help us in earning a living (on most days) - nor can it be quantified or contained, much less explained. Moulded by centuries and centuries of creation, conversation and cultivation - art is borne out of humanity.

However, does art only exist for a higher aesthetic value, or for pretentious inputs, or does it serve a greater purpose? Can art, as an entity - be ethical or unethical? It is simply personal, or can it derive a collective response - or even drive change?

There have been multiple discourses on the relationship between a piece of art and its creator - be it literature, films, music or even paintings. Art cannot exist in a vacuum, it is a physical vessel of the artist’s creation - but when the artist is deemed to be problematic, or even downright terrible - does it instantly make the art bad or tainted as well, or at least - worth speculation?

Art is a personal expression of an individual’s worldview - it is flooded with their perceptions and ideals - so is it really possible to separate art from its artist - and to consume it regardless of the source? This question cannot exist as a binary - it is a morally complex enquiry into the nature of ethical consumption, and no one can enforce their personal beliefs onto you - but it is worth considering what role you play, and where you stand - in this eco-philosophical debate - and whether you can ever be fully unscathed in this battle.

The Economics of Art

A huge contribution towards art - and through it, the artist - is monetary in nature. We need money to sustain our lives - and art can only ever continue, when there are the means to create and produce it - especially in an economy much like ours. Profits run the game, and no matter the cultural and sentimental value of art - it is only deemed worthy when it earns the artist (and other associated individuals) some hard cash.

It is understandable that when a piece of art holds nostalgic or emotional value to you personally, it cannot be easy to discard and disregard its impact on your life. So, when it comes to deciding whether you still want to support the art after their creator has been outed as being a morally concerning person - there are three major Ps that can help ease your mind -

  1. Profit

  2. Principle

  3. Perception

Profit, in the most simplistic manner, refers to the funds the artist gets to continue their legacy. It is the most proactive way to support an artist - and show your appreciation. But, it is also a double-edged sword - because it leverages the artist’s art above their morality and ethics. When an artist has been explicitly outed as a sexual abuse perpetrator, or has evidence that backs up their wrongdoings - the financial, social and power structures put the artist on a pedestal and allow them to evade taking responsibility for their actions.

So if you still choose to consume their art, it is important to wonder whether that person will profit from your consumption. With respect to a dead artist, there is no conversation regarding profits because there is no real motive that can be gained from your support - but for a person who is very much alive and healthy - your purchases and streaming services do actively make a difference. If you financially support “good art” from destructive artists, you are contributing to their power to continue to be destructive.

The next aspect is principle - every person has their personal guideline of ethics that they hold themselves up to - and from a moral viewpoint, you may decide to not consume a piece of art associated with problematic aspects - regardless of the notion of profit, financial or physical. While if you operate from a profit viewpoint - you could still opt to pirate their art so as to assuage yourself, but from a principle stance - you would detach yourself from the artist as well as the art - and not be complicit in any way whatsoever.

The third point is perception. Art, separated from all the enquiries and debates - really does boil down to personal interpretations. Sometimes, art can become tainted once you discover alarming details about the face behind it, and you can never go back to appreciating its value without bias. Although art is deeply private, the context in which it has been created cannot be erased. Art has a source, certain influences and backgrounds - and serves relevance, it would be naive and disrespectful to ignore all of it - just for preservation.

Ethical Consumption of Art

Many artists - of the past as well as of pres ent times - have been convicted of charges that range from abuse and harassment - to even exploitation and death. Does the art only get separated once the artist turns out to be problematic?

Pablo Picasso, a revered painter and revolutionary artist - has an infamous reputation for his misogynistic and sexist behaviours. His work, which has now been immortalised, has caused very real harm to the lives of his victims - both physical and mental. With statements such as - 'Every time I change wives I should burn the last one. That way I'd be rid… You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.', Picasso has proven his flippant attitude for the umpteenth time. His victims have become his inspiration - and thus their pain lives on forever. So by supporting him, are we making a statement that sounds very much like - ‘The context ​​doesn’t affect me so why should I go out of my way to denounce it?’

This is not to say that their art is not worthy of praise and respect, but we as mature individuals - need to develop an ability to critique art and acknowledge its history - while still appreciating its good parts.

In a contemporary set-up, we have artists that have come under the light during the #MeToo Era, artists that have been proven guilty - and yet their careers seem to bloom and prosper as though their behaviours were excusable. By putting them on a pedestal, we normalise this treatment - consciously or unconsciously. Chris Brown, Johnny Depp, J K Rowling, Woody Allen - are all incredibly influential people who continue to progress in their respective careers, and receive accolades despite their irreversible actions. In history as well, the terrible crimes of figures like Bernini are routinely downplayed or overlooked if their reputation has been solidified as that of a great artist. On other occasions, their behaviour is slipped under the mattress, or even celebrated. When considered great, these artists' despicable actions have either been buried, or wrapped into, their cloak of apparent genius.

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

While art can, and should be, respected and appreciated for its aesthetic and social value - and what it provides for us - cultural institutions cannot simply hide the distressing details. You should get the entire story - the good, the bad, and the ugly - especially the ugly. This is a morally grey area, and as such - no opinion can be imposed upon the consumer. Every time a person encounters a piece of art, they remake it anew — and in this way the artist loses autonomy over the final interpretation of their artwork.

But simply ignoring the artist is a disservice to their creations - which have been borne out of deeply personal sentiments and experiences - such as those of Frida Kahlo. To separate the art from the artist would be an insult to their legacies.

Sometimes art in itself does reflect the ideals of its artist - even if we were to assume that J K Rowling did not write the Harry Potter novels - the blatant themes of racism, queerphobia, and problematic story narratives still deserve critique - her personal views have seeped into her work, and that cannot be separated, or overlooked.

“At the end of the day, a work of art that speaks to you is a work of art that speaks to you,” says Hayes-Brady. “It’s not a rational decision, what we love. It’s not possible to have loved a text and then retrospectively to unlove it.”

So what do we do, when the art we love - was created by monsters? Well, we develop the ability to critique it - and choose our stance accordingly. You cannot evade being an ethical consumer simply because it is uncomfortable - so if you do choose to separate the art from the artist - it should not stem from your desire to simply to placate your own conscience.

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