On the impossibility of separating art from artist

Oct. 21, 2017, 4:30 p.m.
On the impossibility of separating art from artist
Hip-hop artist R. Kelly performs in Chicago in 2012. (Courtesy of The Chicago Tribune)

There is perhaps no story repeated more often in the annals of pop culture than that of the brilliant artist who is revealed to be a vile person. The only phenomenon that could possibly rival it in sheer pervasiveness is the chorus of voices that respond to any accusation of serious wrongdoing by an artist with the rejoinder that we must “separate the art from the artist.” Whether it’s being used to defend Caravaggio, Woody Allen or Nate Parker, the idea that we must not abandon works of art solely because of the misdeeds of their creators is a popular one. It’s an appealing concept — I wish I was able to listen to David Bowie without feeling a twinge of guilt after finding out about his coke-fueled fascism-endorsing statements and the stories about his alleged statutory rape of a teenage groupie in the 1970s — and does have some validity. Listening to the Ronettes and luxuriating in the Wall of Sound Phil Spector constructed on those records does not, of course, make you an apologist for his murder of Lana Clarkson.

Yet the practice of separating the art from the artist is far murkier than the lofty ideal. The theory goes, according to its proponents, that the only thing that should matter when experiencing a work of art is what’s actually going on in the work itself. It doesn’t matter who made the work — the same painting painted by a black man and a white man deserve the same critical consideration and praise, and so on — merely the reaction one has to it. You don’t have to feel guilty about liking “Ignition (Remix)” because of who made it, though of course R. Kelly is a reprehensible man. I agree that personal guilt is not a useful part of the work of critically assessing artists who have done reprehensible things, but the idea that a work must only be evaluated based on its direct content is trickier. For as much as we like to imagine art as something higher, something beyond the petty concerns of this world, in reality every work of art is deeply imbued with a number of outside influences, from the geopolitical situation of the world to the sordid personal details of an artist’s life. The artists themselves don’t separate themselves from their work, so a critical approach that refuses to consider outside factors is limited and foolish, blinding us from a full consideration of any creative work. Of course the focus of any analysis of a piece pop culture must be on what’s actually in the work, but “what’s in the work” is never as limited a category as those who want to separate artist from art want to believe.

In modern pop culture, persona and identity so deeply intermingle with art that the artist themselves often becomes impossible to fully disentangle from their art. Consider the films of Woody Allen. The protagonists of movies like “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” in all of their neuroticism and sexual dysfunction, are less characters and more proxies for the director himself, who plays all three. To appreciate one of these films while simultaneously remaining aware of the molestation accusations against Allen is an exercise in cognitive dissonance — it’s hard to enjoy characters written and portrayed by Woody Allen who share obvious resemblance with the man when you’ve read Dylan Farrow’s accusations against her adoptive father. While Allen’s case is an extreme one — most actors, for example, accused of wrongdoing do not play themselves to nearly the same extent as Allen — every creative work is inherently the unique product of the person (or persons) who made it. The same mind that pioneered the depiction of Black Middle Class families on primetime television through “The Cosby Show” also conspired to sexually assault over 60 women. There are not two Bill Cosbys, two Woody Allens, two R. Kellys or two Mel Gibsons — the personal elements of their crafts are powered by the same people who have done despicable things.

This ever-present blurring of the lines between the personal and creative spheres is even more pronounced in the world of music and especially in internet culture. Where fans of Woody Allen can at least claim plausibly that Max Singer from “Annie Hall” is something distinct from Woody Allen the person, and that appreciating the fictional characters is far enough away from appreciating the real person who made them, a more tenuous barrier exists for music fans. All music performers put up a persona different than their true self, but aside from obvious cases like the face-painted theatrical rock of KISS or the cartoon depictions used by Gorrilaz, these personas generally claim authenticity. Rap, punk and country artists place an especially heavy focus on this authenticity — claiming a rapper, for example, does not have as real a background in crime or gang life than he claims, is a serious accusation, and rappers like Rick Ross have been dogged by such accusations for major parts of their careers.

The intermingling of musical popularity and mainstream celebrity further contributes to the difficulty of separating a musician’s performed work, their public persona and their true self. The celebrity musician (and most musicians you know are celebrities of some scene or another) sells two cultural products. The first is their songs, but the second is their persona. This persona, the carefully crafted identity of a pop singer like Lady Gaga or a rapper like Drake, is as much a work of art as any of their individual songs. In this case, then, the misdeeds of the artist inherently affect their art. The loverman personae of Chris Brown and R. Kelly are rendered unconvincing, ineffective craft by the revelations that they, respectively, assault and molest women in their private lives. More generally, fans of a musician want to be able to like the object of their fandom, to imagine them as a sort of far off friend or ally — this is especially true of celebrities that champion social causes relevant to their fanbase. In the case of Brooklyn-based glam punk group PWR BTTM, who actually played a show at Stanford co-op Kairos in February, this penchant for social activism made the accusations of serial sexual assault against guitarist Ben Hopkins all the more shocking and the reaction against them in the punk and indie rock community even more forceful in its punishment. The allegations against Hopkins are horrifying, tracing a years-long pattern of predatory behaviors, and they essentially ruined the message of compassion and radical queer acceptance cultivated by the band’s art.

Yet these arguments are all ultimately based around subjective critical assessments of an artist’s work. Maybe the dissonance felt from watching “The Cosby Show” or listening to Chris Brown doesn’t bring you out of the art as much as it does for others. Beyond these artistic considerations, though, there are less ambiguous material reasons to refuse to separate the art and artist in all cases. The fact of the matter is, in our capitalistic, fame-obsessed culture, being a critically or commercially successful artist gains you a significant amount of influence. This influence, when in the hands of certain unfortunate individuals, can be leveraged to do harm to others.

The case of R. Kelly is perhaps the most illustrative in this matter. At nearly every stage of his career, R. Kelly’s fame, wealth and skill at songwriting have shielded him from consequences for his long history of sexual predation. In 1998, amid scrutiny over his possibly sexual relationship with underage R&B singer Aaliyah, Kelly settled a separate allegation of statutory rape against him out of court for $250,000. In 2001, he settled (paying an undisclosed sum) to another accuser on similar charges. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Jim Rogatis received a tape claiming to depict R. Kelly engaging in sexual relations with and urinating on an underaged girl. A later police raid of Kelly’s Florida home uncovered more photographic evidence of his sexual relations with teenage girls. Yet despite the fairly obvious fact that it was R. Kelly in the video (even though he was one of the most recognizable musicians in the world in the mid 2000s, the singer’s main defense was simply claiming that it wasn’t him, which few outside the court believed), and repeated testimony that the girl depicted in the video was underaged at the time of its filming, R. Kelly suffered no legal consequences in either case due to mishandling of evidence and the reluctance of the girl involved to testify. And even through his legal battles and worrying statements, like when he responded to the journalist Touré asking if he had sexual interest in “teenage girls” with “When you say teenage, how old are you talking?” or his insistence on referring to himself as the “Pied Piper of R&B,” Kelly’s fame and musical success remained constant — during the six years between the discovery of the sex tape and the singer’s acquittal, he released five platinum-selling albums and 26 top 40 singles.

Only the most recent accusations against R. Kelly have caused him any real career trouble. In July of this year, Jim Rogatis published a 5000 word exposé in Buzzfeed detailing the “sex cult”-like arrangement the singer has had for nearly a decade. Young women, many of them aspiring singers who are lured into R. Kelly’s circle with promises of professional mentorship, are made to follow a strict code of conduct while living in properties owned by R. Kelly. The women must “ask for food” and “ask to go use the bathroom, according to the singer’s former personal assistant, and Kelly reportedly controlled their appearances and sexual activities, playing the women off each other by instructing them to report on each other’s behavior. After Rogatis’ story spread through social media, R. Kelly cancelled four out of 10 upcoming tour dates due to low ticket sales.

Both parts of this story follow the twisted logic of the music industry’s implicit policy on sexual predators. R. Kelly was only able to build his “sex cult” because of his fame — the girls around him willingly, at least at first, entered into relationships with him to pursue fame, only to be trapped in something much more sinister. On the other end, the (relatively minor) professional consequences suffered by R. Kelly are reflective of not only the gravity of these accusations but also the singer’s waning starpower — his most recent album, 2015’s “The Buffet,” is by far his worst selling release. Yet even a diminished Kelly is still a commanding figure in the industry — when Buzzfeed asked 43 of the singer’s former collaborators if they would work with him again in light of the allegations, none returned a response, and the only pop musician with any degree of relevance to condemn him was Chicago rapper Vic Mensa. In the music industry, it seems, abusers have nearly infinite leeway as long as they can still make a hit.

The structure of the music industry itself, with its onerous contracts that often strip personal and creative control from artists, can be used as a tool of abuse. The ongoing legal battle between Kesha and mega-producer Dr. Luke is illustrative of this potential. Dr. Luke (real name Lukasz Gottwald), who has written and produced hits like Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A,” groomed Kesha for stardom for four years before she achieved fame with 2009’s “Tik Tok.” Kesha alleges that throughout that period, from her signing with Gottwald’s production companies in 2005 to the aftermath of the release of her sophomore album “Warrior” in 2013, Gottwald abused her in a variety of ways, from the psychological to the sexual. The most striking claim alleges that Gottwald drugged her and raped her in 2005. Many of Kesha’s claims have been dropped or stymied in the courts, and the overall  fate of Kesha’s relationship with Dr. Luke-founded label Kemosabe records is murky. Yet despite the legal ambiguities of the case, the evidence revealed, including a set of emails from Gottwald on Kesha, paints a picture of Dr. Luke as an emotional abuser fueled by the cold financial logic of the music industry. Gottwald is shown to be controlling of Kesha’s diet and belittling of her creative intelligence, all the while justifying his statements as important parts of ensuring Kesha’s professional success. Gottwald’s logic, couching abuse in purely professional considerations, is mirrored by the statements of the New York Supreme Court, who denied Kesha’s injunction to leave her contract with Kemosabe and Sony because her contract was “typical for the industry” and “the commercially reasonable thing.”

Kesha has managed to salvage her career, once in limbo due to disputes relating to her lawsuits, but only through extreme effort. While her legal battle has reached a kind of impasse, with neither party willing to admit defeat, Kesha has won the battle of public opinion. Her fellow pop stars, including Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Adele, have all come to support her cause, and her latest album, “Rainbow,” debuted at the top of the Billboard charts. The album is a triumph — its best songs, especially the ballads like “Praying,” which is fairly obviously about Dr. Luke,” are career highlights for Kesha and would be for any other singer. “Rainbow” covers many sounds, covering a wide swath of Americana, but the one thing it never sounds like is a Dr. Luke production. The success of “Rainbow” and the corresponding career downturn of Dr. Luke — he no longer runs Kemosabe records and hasn’t released a top 10 single for more than two years — represent a sort of vindication for Kesha. But not every person abused by a powerful artist has the power or talent to fight back as Kesha has — greatness should not be the requirement for justice.

Separating the art from the artist would be a perfectly sound critical school among many in an ideal world, one where the power dynamics and imbalances fueled by fame and industry influence did not exist and were not vital tools used by sexual predators of all stripes. That is not the world we live in, though. The choices we make in media consumption matter in a certain material sense — playing an PWR BTTM song on Spotify or buying a Woody Allen movie on DVD literally funds them, and even modes of media consumption that don’t involve spending money still grants artists the influence and celebrity they can use to abuse others and evade consequence. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a moral matter — you aren’t a bad person for watching “Annie Hall” — but merely a matter of tracing cause and effect. By creating a culture that excuses the misdeeds of the powerful, talented or rich, we make it harder for their victims, from fellow celebrities to anonymous teenagers, to retain their dignity in society.  


Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jacob Kuppermann writes about music for the Arts & Life Section of the Stanford Daily. He is currently undecided, both in regards to his major and towards the world as a whole, but enjoys biology, history, playing guitar & bass, and thinking about the Chainsmokers.

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