Can we enjoy the art of problematic artists?

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

By Randy Mancilla

The question of whether an artist’s morality matters if their art is good is both complex and subjective. Although some people may appreciate an artist’s work regardless of their character or actions, others might not be able to separate the two.

Take Kanye West, Ye, for example. There are many people who enjoy his rap music and millions of people who buy his albums. However, Ye has also continuously shown himself to be Anti-Semitic, aligns himself with other problematic celebrities, and has made troubling remarks about slavery being a choice. Despite all this, people enjoy listening to his music; and the more they listen and buy his albums, the more money he earns, and the more popular he becomes. So whether or not audiences agree with Ye and his beliefs,  by listening to his music, they grant him more publicity and revenue.  

So what role does morality play in the art we enjoy?
Art is a form of creative expression that can be expressed through painting, sculpture, literature, music, etc. The pleasure we derive from experiencing art comes from the work itself and not the creator.

We don’t feel joy because we know the artist’s background and beliefs, we feel joy about the individual art piece. Many people do not consider the creator at all when listening to a song, reading a book, or viewing a painting. We are all familiar with the Mona Lisa, but how many of us really know much about Leonardo Da Vinci’s beliefs?
However, this has been called into question, especially recently. Art is often a reflection of the artist’s values, beliefs, and experiences. So it may be difficult to fully separate an artist from his or her influences and worldviews. 

Dr. Seuss has recently become a controversial figure. Although his children’s books have been beloved for generations, his racism even in some of those books has called for many to ban his books. A more recent author, Nobuhiro Nishiwaki is the author of the Japanese manga “Rurouni Kenshin.” He was convicted of being a pedophile in 2017, and yet his manga is still one of the best selling. Although both Dr. Seuss and Nishiwaki’s works are great, these two authors are problematic.

It is important to consider the harm that can be caused by supporting unethical artists. We may contribute to them continuing harmful behavior by sending the message that their actions are acceptable by keeping them in the limelight. By purchasing these artists’ works or supporting them, audiences encourage them to continue producing work, but also to continue their beliefs. Salvador Dali is a prime example of this. He was a Sadist and Hitler fanatic; yet his artwork is still bought and sold, even decades after his death. But buying a print of “The Persistence of Memory” is not aiding the Anti-Semitic cause. Although all the money goes to the artist, you are paying for them to continue producing art. You are merely supporting their art which brings you joy, not the artist him or herself.. Will you not pay for the continuous production of incredible music, phenomenal art, and ingenious stories? In the end that’s what it all comes down to.  

I feel that we can enjoy art without concerning ourselves with the artists’ personal values and beliefs. Art should be able to stand on its own.