Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?

It feels like there’s been a lot going on recently which has made me want to write about it but actually sitting down and typing it is difficult and you’ll understand why as you read on. Our heroes are supposed to be people we look up to, aspire to be like, motivate us, generally be good people. But what happens when your childhood heroes let you down. And I’m not talking in a rock n roll style, cheats on their wives/girlfriends/are a little bit of an arsehole kind of way. In some ways we want our pop stars to live that hedonist lifestyle we can’t. I’m talking about when someone you admire does, or is accused of something really bad. Do you stop listening to that person immediately? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?

I have a few examples I want to talk about, the first of which being an obvious one; Michael Jackson. I was the biggest MJ fan as a child, I must have worn the Bad and Dangerous cassettes out on my ghetto blaster 3 times over. And of course when the first set of allegations came out, I was still quite young and it probably went over my head a little bit. But as time went on, and grew up and understood more detail, it starts to sink in that he may not have been a great guy. At the very least he made some poor decisions and at the very worse was an absolute monster.

I spent a lot of time defending him in my younger years. I believed that he believed he was still a child at heart, and whilst ill-advised to be sharing your bed with young children, it was all innocent. He was never actually convicted of anything, no one ever proved anything. The legal system worked. Was that just convenient for me though because I liked his music and didn’t want to believe he’d done the things he was accused of? These days I’m less sure and that’s where I stand on the whole situation. I just don’t know. I don’t know if he’s guilty or innocent or what he did and what he didn’t. And we’ll probably never know now.

Moving on to two people who’ve hurt my feelings in different ways over the last couple of years. Nick and Brian from Backstreet Boys. Obviously they’ve been my faves since I was about 14 and was a complete sucker for their god boy images. Now, obviously, I’m not an idiot and although it came apparent the older I got that they may not be the nicest of guys, I never really thought they would do anything that bad.

In 2018 Nick was accused of sexual assault. Now, this wasn’t that surprising to me, at around the time of the accusation he had gone a bit off the rails, didn’t seem to want to associate himself with being in a boyband any more and generally just came across as a bit of a dickhead. There are some plot holes in the accusers story which does make we wonder whether that particular incident happened the way she says it did, but again. I just don’t know, and whether he actually assaulted her or not, it’s pretty clear he acted in a less than chivalrous way and coercion is something that should be taken just as seriously.

Then there’s Brian. Trump loving, Brian. I always knew he was a republican. And that didn’t bother me too much. He’s also deeply religious and the two tend to go hand in hand. It became a little more serious though when his wife started posting some pretty horrific anti trans and Confederate flag supporting nonsense on Twitter.

Now I know your views and your wife’s views don’t necessarily need to be exactly the same. But I’m a married woman and I would struggle to be with someone who had completely polar opposite political views than me. I just don’t believe that he doesn’t share the same views as her, I think he’s just smarter about not posting them on the internet. Then in January last year, he announced he was joining racist, sorry ‘free speech’ platform Parler. Final nail in coffin for me. I especially feel for their fans who are people of colour, that must have been a very hard pill to swallow.

So what does all this mean? Should it matter? I mean, in terms of BSB, they write very few of their own songs so in terms of money, they don’t get the lions share of it anyway. But when I think about how much I’ve invest in them, both financially and emotionally, it just sucks that they’re not the people you believed them to be. But does it mean that I’m going to stop listening to their music and going to see them live?

Feelings like these can be attributed to cognitive dissonance and it can be very uncomfortable. In this case, music that I associate with comfort and a musician whose behaviour is far from acceptable. You could argue that once the art is out there it ceases to be the artist’s possession. You now interpret it through your own thoughts and feelings. In the case of a song you may attach memories; it could have been the first dance at your wedding or something you would sing loudly on car journeys with your family as a child. You can say ‘I love this song. It came into my life and became something that the artist never intended. The song and the feelings are mine now.’

In order to alleviate the discomfort you have to move one or the other values. At first you disbelieve the stories. It’s instinct to protect the art you love from the taint, but evidence increases until you can no longer deny it. That’s a very uncomfortable moment when you have to confront the truth. You may ‘cancel’ by rejecting the art along with the artist, or you may try to dissociate the art from the artist.

I could go round in circles on this all day so I’ll try and summarise as best we can. Art in any form creates a personal, emotional connection. And music particularly is intrinsically linked to memories and experiences and connections with people (I met my best friend because of our love for the Backstreet Boys). If you support the art then you are, by proxy, supporting the artist. But I think it’s ok to appreciate the art and still be honest about what kind of person the artist is.

It’s a thin line; being seen to promote the art of someone who has done something bad, could be seen as endorsing that kind of behaviour. But similarly, you can’t unfeel the feeling you get when you listen to your favourite song from your favourite artist. I think if you want to continue enjoying the art created by someone who’s behaviour or beliefs don’t align with yours, you have to be able to separate the art from the artist.

Whether you can though is a different thing altogether and something I’m still working on. When I have a definitive answer I’ll let you know!


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