VOICES: Can you truly love the art when you hate the artist?

Category:  Opinions
Monday, September 28th, 2020 at 12:19 PM

Warning: This article contains discussion of instances of physical, mental and sexual abuse and harm. If you or anyone you know has been subject to any acts of violence, visit ncadv.org for resources on how to seek help.

Can one truly love the art when you hate the artist? 

Many would say no, not really. The art is an extension of the person, and thus the work is deeply tied to the artist. Political affiliation, religious beliefs, or personal style aside, some artists out there have done horrible, atrocious things to other people and have infected their craft. Some things are simply unforgivable. 

Take R. Kelly as an extreme example. He has been accused and convicted of several different sex crimes dating back to the ‘90s. NPR in July 2019 wrote about charges stemming out of New York: “Federal prosecutors charged Kelly with one count of racketeering related to kidnapping and four violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting people across state lines for ‘immoral purposes.’ Kelly allegedly abused five victims, including three minors, in incidents as far back as 1999 and as recently as 2018, the indictment alleges.”  

This is in addition to his marriage to then 15-year-old Aaliyah in 1994. According to NPR (in December 2019), the “Eastern District of New York” has filed a charge against Kelly as a result of this marriage, alleging that “on the day before his wedding to Aaliyah, Kelly and others in his circle bribed a public official in Illinois to create a fake ID for ‘Jane Doe #1.’”  

NPR puts it succinctly: “When people talk about a quarter century of allegations against R&B singer R. Kelly, they usually point to one starting point: his relationship with his teenage protégée, the late singer Aaliyah.” 

You can check out the Netflix documentary series, titled “Surviving R. Kelly,” in which these allegations and more are talked about in depth. His ex-wife even speaks out about the alleged abuse she went through. This includes having to ask Kelly if she wanted to go get food or use the bathroom. They also go in on his trial in 2008 where he was acquitted for child porn allegations from 2002. 

How does this not ruin the music for people?  

His music is good — that is not being debated here. But I cannot simply separate the horrible things he has been accused of from the music. It does not matter how catchy the “Ignition” remix is. 

Bill Cosby has also been involved in scandal. According to The Washington Post, 58 women have accused him of slipping drugs into their drinks and having sex with/molesting (read: raping) them while unconscious or incoherent. That was his main objective — his move. Others say he pressured and forced them to do sexual acts. Fifty-eight separate women, dating back to 1965 and all the way up to 2008, accused him of doing these horrible things. He got away with this for 43 years. The Washington Post article says the women varied in age — from under 18 to 31.  

Cosby was idolized by stand-up comedians for decades, especially in the Black community; he was one of the few Black comedians at the time and arguably the most successful. He was also a clean stand-up comedian who was seen as family-friendly. Cosby played off this persona, portraying a solid, present, loving father and doctor on TV through “The Cosby Show.” He was like the Black “Mr. Rogers”; the epitome of goodness. Then women started coming forward saying they were sexually assaulted. People were crushed; he was a comedy legend. 

These allegations had been swept under the rug for years. CNN reports that back in 2004, Cosby, a Temple University trustee, gave Andrea Constand, a Temple employee, pills to incapacitate her and then sexually assaulted her. She told police in 2005 about the incident, but prosecutors declined to press charges, and they settled the case in civil court a year later. 

A decade later in 2015, nearly five dozen other women came forward to say Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them over his decades as a powerful media figure. Constand's was the only one of those cases that occurred within the statute of limitations though. A new team of prosecutors took up the case and Cosby was arrested in December 2015. 

Cosby's first criminal trial ended in a hung jury. He was then convicted in April 2018, in the first high-profile celebrity criminal trial of the #MeToo era, of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and assaulting Constand. Cosby was sentenced in September 2018. 

A lot of human beings lost their childhood hero in that process. They were betrayed and sold an entirely false bill of goods. He cannot be excused of these actions because of this false persona. Supporting his comedy and other art is supporting him and that is not OK. It has been contaminated through his own despicable actions. 

Louis C.K. is another a popular stand-up comedian who, according to People Magazine, was accused by five women of sexual misconduct. The allegations include masturbating in front of them and masturbating over the phone while speaking with them. Vox reported that he would stand in front of the door and not let them leave. Vox and People say that, at first, he denied these claims, but then eventually issued a statement saying it was true and that he was sorry. (Vulture also has a detailed timeline regarding the allegations). 

Louis C.K. is attempting to make a comeback and has been since shortly after the allegations. He has done spots at famed New York City club, The Comedy Cellar, according to their Instagram. He also wanted to do a tour of 2,000 seat theaters in 2019 but did not go through with it. He does however have dates scheduled for 2021 on his website.  

What he did was despicable and gross. Having him on tour and around people again, sometimes in the same setting he committed these acts in, is dangerous. It can put people at risk of being victims who don’t have to be. It is also way harder to enjoy comedy after these allegations came out … especially because he was a comedian known for masturbation bits. According to Vox, he even continued to do these jokes after allegations came out in 2019.  

These are just three examples of the many public figures who have put themselves in this situation. They deserve to be remembered for the things they did to others and the people they hurt. The art should be relegated to a sidenote. 

Some may believe separating art from the artist is a necessary evil. Art is meant for enjoyment. One of its main purposes is to bring joy to those who experience it. Is it so wrong to continue to enjoy art that was created by someone who has committed crimes, or even said controversial things? Is the art poisoned just because the person who created it is?  Sometimes art becomes so powerful it takes on a life of its own, separate from the original creator.   

Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. 

The series itself has become so much more than just seven books. There are eight movies, theme parks and exhibits in multiple countries showcasing props, costumes, and sets from the movies, an endless amount of merchandise, and even a stage show. The impact of Harry Potter has even hit our small Edinboro community with the long-running Potterfest. To so many, the world of Harry and his magic has become part of their identity, shaping their childhood and creating a lasting impact into adulthood. 

However, the author of the series, J.K. Rowling, has become a controversial figure as of late. 

In a series of tweets from June 2020, the famous writer spoke about the transgender community. She said: “I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were being discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not think it’s hateful to say so.” She also said: “I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.” This essentially claims that by not identifying with one’s born sex, they are taking away her ability to discuss her experience in life as a cisgendered woman.  

Many members of the trans community, who had been fans of the series for their entire lives, felt like this was a slap in the face. The trans community has faced hardships for decades upon decades just because they are trans. So, claiming that she didn’t believe they were being discriminated against upset many people.  

In tweets posted in July 2020, the author continued to attack the trans community. She spoke on hormone therapy for young trans people. “We [people] are watching a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people, who are being set on a lifelong path of medicalization that may result in the loss of their fertility and/or full sexual function.” She again attacked the trans community and further marginalized a group of people already faced with oppression daily.   

Fans were outraged. The creator of the ultimate modern hero story — an orphan boy and the greatest villain fiction had ever seen — had just become the evil her characters worked so hard to vanquish. However, this series was so meaningful to so many; readers all over the world took to separating her name from the series entirely. Some defaced their books and wrote over her name on the front cover, placing characters’ names over hers. The art has taken on such a life of its own that taking Rowling’s name away from it felt right to many who had bonded so closely with the world she had created.  

Rowling released a new book on Sept. 15 in her Cormoran Strike series, titled “Troubled Blood,” in which a man dresses as a woman to lure innocent young ladies their death. This character is described as a “psychopathic serial killer” in the summary on the book’s Goodreads’ page. Fans of Rowling were once again disappointed in the writer. This most recent book was seen as an attack on the trans community, Rowling was furthering the false narrative that trans individuals are dangerous and should be feared. 

Let’s move to yet another complex situation. In May 2016, Johnny Depp’s then wife, Amber Heard, filed for divorce, claiming Depp physically abused her throughout the marriage. Heard was granted a restraining order against Depp. The divorce was settled in 2017, but the abuse claims still plague Depp’s reputation. Many fans were angered to see him still cast in movies as these allegations came to the surface (ironically, twice in a “Fantastic Beasts” movie).

Shortly after the initial claim of Depp’s abuse, the actor himself claimed he was the victim of domestic violence at the hands of Heard, and sued for defamation. In an audio clip obtained by British news outlet, The Daily Mail, a female voice, allegedly Heard’s, can be heard saying to Depp: “I f**king was hitting you ... I don't know what the motion of my actual hand was, but you're fine, I did not hurt you, I did not punch you, I was hitting you.” Both parties have released photos showing various bruises and cuts which resulted from the abuse.   

The legitimacy of these claims are still being disputed in court as recently as August 2020. It’s presently unclear what the true story is, but fans of both actors have taken sides on who they believe and who’s to blame. Is it ethical to support any movies Depp or Heard are in, knowing the unresolved abuse claims laid on both of them?  

Huge teams work together to create these stories and films. In addition to this, movie sets provide hundreds of jobs for people. So, by choosing to not see a movie because of one controversial actor, support is being pulled from many others. Actors do not create the majority of the characters they portray. Separating any actor from a character is an essential part of consuming movies or television. You have to suspend your disbelief and understand you are not watching the literal person on the screen, but instead a piece of art so many have worked incredibly hard to create, no matter who is listed in the credits.  

There is really no argument for Bill Cosby being a good man. Fifty-eight women have accused him of heinous acts; he’s deservedly in jail and was convicted in one of these cases. However, his role in “The Cosby Show” had a profound impact on Black America in the 1980s.  

“The Cosby Show,” according to the New York Times, “saved the sitcom genre.” It was one of the biggest hits of the ‘80s and due to its success, it paved the way for more Black representation on television. “The Cosby Show” set the stage for other programs with a predominantly Black cast, like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and “Family Matters.” TV Guide said: “‘The Cosby Show’ remains the most-watched show featuring a predominantly black cast in the history of American TV. For five of the eight years it ran, it was the most-watched show in America — period.”   

“The Cosby Show” showed the Black nuclear family to all of America. The show did not rely on stereotypes of “Blackness” to create humor. The New York Times said the show, “refined Blackness,” not for Black America but for white America. This was a Black narrative that did not focus on what white society of the time might think a Black narrative was.  

Setting aside Bill Cosby’s character entirely, “The Cosby Show” revolutionized the idea of an educated Black woman. Clair Huxtable, portrayed by Phylisha Rashad, was a loving mother and a successful lawyer. This depiction of an educated Black mother was something not seen in the popular media of the time. The concept of a working woman wasn’t new. What was new was seeing a working Black woman with a family who supported her. 

Bill Cosby is horrible. There is no other way to put it. He committed disgusting acts of violence against many women and that is virtually unforgivable. But to write off “The Cosby Show” entirely because of his acts is a disservice to the impact of the show. “The Cosby Show” gave positive representation to a group of Americans who had been misrepresented for a very long time. It revolutionized the way white America consumes Black media.

Holding someone accountable for their actions is a fundamental principle of society; when someone does something wrong, they must be held accountable. But when it comes to an artist, do wrong actions mean the entire body of work must be forgotten? Some would argue yes.  

By continuing to consume the craft, you are supporting the person and their actions. Some may argue that there is gray area and supporting the art does not mean you are supporting the creator. Some art has gone beyond the means of its intended purpose and has come to represent much more than its face value. Someone can be encouraged by that impact and support it, while understanding that the creator is a bad person. Sometimes art takes on a life of its own, separate from its creation. Art in any form is to entertain. If you are entertained, then maybe that’s enough. 

So, can you truly love the art when you hate the artist? It’s up to you.

Emily Anderson is the Voices Editor for The Spectator. Samantha Mannion is a staff writer for The Spectator. They can be both reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

View Our YouTube Channel
Edinboro TV
Find Us on Instagram