Even if it was created by a terrible person, can art still be beautiful?
Is it possible to appreciate something created by someone, when you know that creator has done something you disagree with strongly?
And how bad does their action have to be in order for people to change their mind about the quality of their creative work?
Simply put, can you separate the artist as a person from the art they create?
This has been a question which people and scholars have wrestled with for centuries.
And it is a question for which each person likely needs to decide where their own limits lie, based on their own values, what society deems appropriate in the time they live, and the in-groups they affiliate themselves with.
In this article, I will share my own view on the subject, including examples of famous artists who are deemed to have spoiled their reputations in one way or another.
Performance vs Creation
One of the major aspects to consider is whether the art is deliberately a performance which depicts something controversial, and is not representative of the artist or creator in real life.
Many artists over time have created or performed pieces of art which deal with controversial and emotional topics in order to spark discussion, elicit emotion or show their own struggles with a topic.
For example, artists have created masterpieces depicting the horrors or war (Guernica by Picasso), slavery, torture, depression, adultery and eroticism. But that did not mean the painters believed those topics to be positive.
Perhaps the clearest examples come from performance art like film and theatre. Here an actor may portray a character who may be vile and disgusting and may commit horrible actions.
For example, in the film Django Unchained, actor Leonardo DiCaprio plays a violent, psychotic slave owner.
However, we as the audience know that the actor is just acting a character.
They do not need to agree with or believe everything they create or perform.
We know that Leo was not in reality a slave-loving plantation owner, it was just a character they played.
Similarly, we know that Stephen King, bestselling author of horror books, is not personally a mass murderer. Or that even thought he created monsters like sewer-dwelling, child-abducting cannibal clowns, he
So when it comes to separating art from artist, most people would have no trouble praising an artist for creating a piece of art, or performing a character or piece, if they know that the creator / performer themselves does not agree with the controversial topic.
The problem arises when it really is the creator who holds views or has performed actions which go beyond the art they create.
Often, we are most disappointed by artists who gained popularity based on the quality of their art, only to later on reveal they have done or believe things which taint the way that people see them.
But not every action or view is created equally.
Based on my research, some views and activities may hurt someone’s reputation for a while but are quickly forgiven, while others are deemed so terrible that they destroy the artist’s reputation permanently, making it almost offensive to admit that you enjoy their work in public.
I would summarise those categories as follows, in decreasing order of how offensive they appear to affect an artist’s reputation:
- [Worst impact] Performing actions which are deemed inexcusable and illegal
- Having views or actions in public which may be forgiven by the majority of people at the time, but are inexcusable nowadays
- Having views in public which are deemed socially inexcusable by the general population and not showing remorse
- Having views in private which are deemed socially inexcusable by the general population and not showing remorse
- Having inexcusable views or actions but either showing remorse or apologising
- Performing actions which are illegal, but still accepted
- Being accused of actions or views which are not proven
- [Least impact] Having views which are deemed inexcusable by a vocal minority, but accepted by the general population
Here are some notable examples:
Performing actions which are deemed inexcusable and illegal
One thing to consider when judging an artist is whether their actions were actually illegal, and what type of crime they committed.
But also, was the action inexcusable, which implies whether the artists committing the crimes knew what they were doing and still chose to continue doing it.
For example, artists who have been accused of or convicted for serious crimes include:
- R Kelly: The platinum-selling, Grammy-winning RnB singer was one of the most popular musicians in the 1990s and 2000s with hits like “Ignition (Remix)” and “I believe I can fly”. However, he has been convicted on crimes related to child pornography, sexual abuse and even marrying an underage girl.
- Bill Cosby: During the 1980s, the comedian was the world’s highest paid entertainer and beloved for his wholesome public persona. However, recent convictions due to numerous instances of drugging and raping multiple women have led to him being sent to jail. Even though this has recently been overturned, his name was still tarnished irrevocably.
- Harvey Weinstein: Once one of the most powerful movie producers in Hollywood, Weinstein’s films have together won more than 81 Oscars. However, he used his power to sexually assault and rape multiple women, who eventually came forward during the #MeToo movement and resulted in him being convicted and jailed for 39 years.
- Woody Allen: Accusations of sexual abuse of his 7 year old daughter Mia Farrow have haunted Allen for decades. However, the lack of conclusive evidence means that some people have chosen to turn a blind eye and stay neutral on supporting the work of the director, while others say he should no longer be worked with, or stars say they regret working with him.
- Kevin Spacey: Winner of multiple Oscars and loved for his popular “House of Cards” streaming show, Spacey was at one point one of Hollywood’s leading actors. However, multiple accusations of sexual assault by younger men have permanently tarnished his reputation.
When people think of modern examples of creators whose names have been tarnished forever by their actions, these four men are likely to be high on the list.
So much so that many people feel like they can no longer appreciate the songs by R Kelly, the TV Shows and Comedy of Bill Cosby or the films of Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. Even if they were loved before, the new information which came out about them has made it almost unacceptable to enjoy their performances or work.
It may just show that out of all the things an artist can do, crimes of a sexual nature against women and children are the ones which audiences find hardest to forgive.
Having views or actions in public which may be forgiven by the majority of people at the time, but are inexcusable nowadays
Often, what is deemed inexcusable or innappropriate nowadays was unfortunately tolerated and often legal in the past.
In some cases, as social awareness on issues evolves and changes, the way we look at creators in the past changes as well.
Take for example:
- Richard Wagner: This German composer had a huge impact on the world of music and performance art through his development of concepts such as the Leitmotif and the Gesamtkunstwerk. However, he is also known to be a strong antisemite, and his anti-Jewish views resulted in Hitler being a fan of his work and using it at many Nazi rallies, long after Wagner’s death. As a result, works by Wagner are often seen as highly inappropriate by many Jewish people, and not being allowed to be performed in Israel.
- Benvenuto Cellini: This Italian sculptor, author and goldsmith allegedly killed several people, even admitting as much in his autobiography. However, this was in the 16th Century, and apparently being a respected member of the artistic elite class meant that Cellini escaped being executed for his crimes.
- (Michelangelo Merisi da) Caravaggio: Another Italian Renaissance artist, Caravaggio was known as a violent man, the violence also reflected in his works. He killed a man in a brawl leading to a death sentence in his native Rome, so he fled to Naples where he built up a new reputation as one of the most prominent painters of his generation. However, his violent past and tendencies caught up with him, as he died under mysterious circumstances aged only 38.
- Racist scenes in old Disney films: A number of old Walt Disney animated films, often beloved by children and adults at the time, depicted animals or characters with the racist characteristics of minority groups, such as African-americans (Dumbo), Asians (Lady and the Tramp), Native Americans (Peter Pan) and even anti-gay sentiment in many villains. This caused so much controversy that when adding these films to their streaming service, Disney now has a notice before the films that those depictions were wrong then, and are wrong now.
The opposite is of course also true. There are many views which historically may have been disgusting for the majority of the population, which are either now completely accepted or on their way.
Examples of things which are more accepted today than they were in the past include:
- Women artists
- Artists from demographic minorities who are also showcasing their world
- Sexual content / nudity in film, theatre and television
- Profanity in music
- Artistic works by LGBTQ artists and depicting LGBTQ situations
- Art which criticises religion and the state
Having views in public which are deemed socially inexcusable by the general population and not showing remorse
In order for many people to stop supporting an artist, they need to see a revelation come out into the public which was previously hidden.
Sometimes, the artist does not have to have done anything criminal or terrible. They just need to hold a view which is so different from you, or so unacceptable to society, that it makes people want to exclude them from their in-group and no longer be associated with liking their work, just in case it makes others believe you also support the author’s views.
Take for example:
- JK Rowling: After bringing joy to millions of children and adults by writing the Harry Potter series of books, in recent years Rowling has openly showed support for media which is critical or violent against Transgender people. Her recent book series called the “Cormoran Strike” is even criticised for having Anti-Trans themes. While there is no content in Harry Potter specifically which is Anti-Trans, many LGBTQ groups suggest that Rowling cannot be supported because she promotes hateful views, and so all of her previous work should also be excluded.
- Scott Adams: The creator of the popular “Dilbert” cartoon lost most of the distribution for his cartoon when he openly told white people to “get away from black people”, openly talking about his racist views. Ironically, this came about because he was discussing something as mundane as a Twitter poll.
Having views in private which are deemed socially inexcusable by the general population and not showing remorse
It is especially complicated to determine whether you can support someone who may have secretly held views you disagree with.
After all, everyone keeps secrets, including our families, our friends, and we ourselves in front of others. After all, we don’t want to be judged based on something we believe may make others like us less.
So when we find out an artist had a belief or behaviour in their personal life we may disagree with, it can be tricky to determine whether it means we should judge their work differently.
Take for example:
- Roald Dahl: One of my favourite authors of children’s books, it was shortly before his death at age 74 that Dahl admitted he was an anti-semite, a view he had kept secret his entire life. His family has since apologised for the remarks, but many people now question whether it is possible to enjoy the family-friendly books, which make no mention of his views on Jewish people, if the author held those views in secret.
- Pablo Picasso: Many of Picasso’s great works show his passion for the female form. The artist himself was also known to be infatuated by sex and women, having many mistresses and affairs while married. According to accounts from the women in his life, including his family, he would often use these women to charge his creative process, then dispose of them afterwards and move on to the next woman.
- Armie Hammer: The American actor had private text messages released showing he had a sexual fetish thinking about cannibalism. Even though he has never acted on that fetish (which would be wrong on not just an illegal level), many people have judged him for it.
Having inexcusable views or actions but either showing remorse or apologising
Sometimes, people can regain the trust of people they offended, given time and the right apologies.
Or at least, regain acceptance from enough people that they can continue working, even if a section of the population will never forgive them.
Take these examples:
- Kanye West: The troubled Rapper, fashion designer and Entrepreneur got into even more trouble in 2022 when he began posting hateful tweets, messages and video appearances which were hateful and violent against Jewish and Black people. These messages angered people so much that major sponsors Adidas and Balenciaga pulled their fashion lines developed with him, costing both the companies and West billions of dollars. However, in a bizarre series of events, West has now apparently (indirectly) showed remorse by claiming watching a film with Jewish actor Jonah Hill made him like Jewish people again. West has previously admitted to having bi-polar disorder, which may explain why some people are reacting to his outburts with empathy, saying he needs help, rather than just shunning him.
- Ezra Miller: the actor has been arrested numerous times, including for grooming an underage man for sex and stealing alcohol. However, Miller has apologised and has claimed he (they) has been suffering from mental health issues and is seeking help. Nonetheless, his upcoming Superhero film “The Flash” has many moviegoers asking themselves if they should watch the film if the main actor is engaging in such controversial behaviour.
- Mel Gibson: Actor and Director Gibson has been caught using anti-semitic language numerous times. He has apologised for his remarks, especially after a particular incident in 2006 when he insulted a Jewish police officer, but many of his colleagues in Hollywood felt this was not enough. Many directors and actors refused to work with him after 2006. Yet over time the director and actor has slowly begun working again and now it appears that he is slowly gaining back support from his peers.
Performing actions which are illegal, but still accepted
Sometimes, an artist can do something illegal, but the audience will still support them.
In fact, sometimes the illegal nature of the art or artist only serves to provide them with more authenticity or credo.
Here are some examples:
- Banksy: Painting on someone else’s walls without their permission is known as vandalism, and is a crime in Great Britain. Yet graffiti artist Banksy has built up such a cult following that people are thrilled when they find the artist has secretly painted on their walls, often raising the value of their buildings by millions. However, some other artists complain of a double-standard, where Banksy has become the only artist given the permission to do this type of art without repercussions.
- Snoop Dogg: When rapper Snoop Dogg (real name Calvin Broadus) was becoming famous, he was taken to court on a charge of being an accessory to murder. Broadus was found not guilty, which only served to give more credibility to his “gangster rap” music persona and propel him to superstardom.
Being accused of actions or views which are not proven
Sometimes, an artist is accused of something which offends a large number of people, even if it is not proven to be true.
In this case, the majority of people may still support the artist and their work, but might be willing to change their mind if the accusations were to be proven with evidence.
A classic case here is Michael Jackson, who was accused on numerous occasions of allegations of sexual abuse, including of a 13 year old boy. However, these allegations were never proven. As a result, most people still feel it is ok to enjoy his groundbreaking music, especially as he passed away prematurely as well.
Having views which are deemed inexcusable by a vocal minority, but accepted by the general population
And then finally, there are the situations where a vocal minority strongly disapproves of a certain artist due to the content of their art, as they have a strong set of beliefs that this art goes against. However, often the majority of people do not share this strong belief, and therefore continue to enjoy the artist.
- Parents Music Resource Center: This committee was formed in 1983 after several groups of conservative parents complained that their children were able to buy music with themes and lyrics about sex, drugs or violence. As a result, music publishers began putting stickers saying “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” on records which contained those themes. Ironically, this badge often made those records even more desirable for the very children the parents were trying to “protect”.
- Bollywood actresses told not to wear revealing dresses: Many actresses in India have had negative comments on social media when they are seen in dresses or outfits which some conservative movie fans deem as showing too much skin
- Florida banning books in schools: A recent law change in the US state of Florida, driven by conservative Christian groups, has told schools they are only allowed to display books which are on an approved list. This has resulted in numerous books which have characters dealing with gay issues, racism, slavery, sex or many other topics which some ultra-conservative Christian parents do not want their children exposed to, as being either covered up or completely removed from the school libraries.
- Ai Weiwei banned from leaving his homeland, China: Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei is banned from leaving his own country for creating art which the government believes is critical of the Chinese state. This is an example of the State trying to control who and what an artist can produce, and who can see it
So in conclusion, I believe whether you can seperate the art from the artist comes down to two things: what specifically that artist did or said (believed in), and how those actions or views compare to your own beliefs and values.
In my case, there are some instances where I can separate the art from the artist, and some where I cannot.
Now, after seeing all of these example, what do you think?
Are there any artists whose works and art you can no longer support, after you found out something about them? What was it?
Let me know in the comments below.
Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.