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Separating the artist from their art

Words by Mercia Tucker

“Can you separate an artist from their art?” is an old question but is still a relevant one. That there exists in the world a bond stronger than an exceptional artist’s with his art, I’m not convinced. A birthing doesn’t seem an adequate descriptor. It doesn’t quite capture that, unlike with human childbearing; this particular offspring is of you, not from you. It doesn’t relay its immortality; a work of art can last millennia. The process is also not quite as short-lived as nine months; they say you live your whole life to make your first album.

Sometimes writing is a kind of dismemberment, a taking apart of yourself and laying it out again in prose or poetry. The process is so self-exploratory that it seems difficult to imagine that the words dancing on the pages, that took flight to a progression of keys or the thumping of 808s, aren’t a representation of the artist at his core. And because the art itself is so untarnished, so perfect in its presentation and interpretation, people often see it as an incarnation of the artist and project that same perfection onto him. How could such amazing work be the product of a broken person?

What usually draws us to any piece of art, and revere it, is the way in which we relate to the piece. Be it a film, painting, or a song, we relate to it in the way that it mirrors some or other characteristic of our personality. We see ourselves in it. We cure our heartbreak to their guitar strums, pick apart our insecurities to their mournful lyrics. Because of this, we’re invested in the art, and by association, the artist.

When confronted with artists’ very real and repugnant flaws, we’re forced to now create the clear line separating artist and offspring. Because if Artist A is a social deviant, and his music is a representation of himself, and I relate to his music, what does that make me? Because of our emotional attachment to their work, we tend to hold on to it without confronting the actions of its creator. It’s a way that we’ve avoided difficult conversations around accountability in creative spaces and allowed abuse to continue unchecked.

There’s an unspoken, but thoroughly abhorrent, notion that good art excuses abuse. A big part of it is the culture of celebrity hero worship that society indulges in. We hold in high regard a select few as outliers because of their talent and refusal to kick the pedestal out from under their feet to ground them when they mess up. We need to rid ourselves of it. Nobody is above reproach with regards to abuse but the tendency to sweep under the rug the more questionable actions from our favourite artists gives credence to that notion.

“We love Michael so much we let the first kid slide … Hey man, the man made Billie Jean, leave him alone!” An old Chris Rock joke, but still an accurate reflection of society’s reverence for him with nary an interrogatory thought on the accusations. The long list of accusations against R. Kelly hasn’t so much as begged the question ‘Are the lyrics I don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump n’ grind actually referencing sex with a teenage girl? Is it that far of an imaginative stretch for the writer of Age Aint Nothing but a Number?’

Part of the fallacy of divorcing the artist from the art presents itself here. What happens when abuse is woven into the subject matter itself? How do we make that compartmentalisation and appreciate the art regardless? Accused of abusing his adoptive daughter, Woody Allen’s Manhattan stars himself as a 42 year old man dating a 17 year old girl. Is Allen, who began dating his former fiancée’s adoptive daughter when she was only 19 and he was 56, a case of art imitating life, or life imitating art? Unlike many other artists, Woody’s work is so inextricably linked to him “Woody is an example of somebody who has quite consciously merged his life with his work, so in a sense, he has created a work of art called ‘Woody Allen,’” says his long-time writing partner, Marshall Brickman.

Another moral dilemma that presents itself is that by praising and supporting the art of known abusers, we indirectly endorse them too. The Roman Polanski, convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13 year old, who made The Pianist will more likely be approached to make another film as a result of the popularity of the previous one. And so by giving more exposure to abusers and increasing their visibility, we do the abuse victims the injustice of making it more difficult to come forward against and expose a figure that society is already so endeared to.

Closer to home, we have the case of Smiso ‘OKMalumKoolKat’ Zwane. Convicted for indecent assault and assault with indecent intent, the Durban-born and Johannesburg-based rapper was in Australia performing at the MOFO cultural festival when he went out drinking with friends and couldn’t find his way back to his hotel room. He stumbled into a fellow artist’s room via an open sliding door and, according to Crown prosecutor Rebecca Lancaster, told her “don’t make any noise” when she woke to find him kissing her and rubbing his hands over her private parts.

Offering no explanation of the events of the day until an interview with Anele Mdoda and The Plug, OKMalumKoolKat’s conviction has both shocked the industry, and split it between the general public demanding accountability, and his friends in the industry who’ve denounced the calls for him to be removed from event line-ups on the premise that he needs to work and feed his family.

Separating the artist from their art in almost all situations outside of the artist being abusive is as subjective a discussion as who MVP of the season should be. I couldn’t particularly care if Lupe’s smug demeanour and grandstanding with his superior intellectual standpoint is enough of an irritation to warrant boycotting his music. As annoying as Nicki Minaj’s Barbie image and deliberate dumbing down of her ability to cater to a more popular audience is, I am not divesting myself from any project she releases purely out of spite. But when it comes to abuse, hard questions have to be asked.

Can I remove my personal connection to a piece of art and look at an issue objectively?

Am I enabling the culture of abuse by financially and socially supporting an abusive artist?

Is our silence compliance?


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