Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Can We Separate the Art from the Artist?



The following is an updated version of a post that appeared originally on the philosophy website Daily Nous as part of their “Philosophers On” series. Thanks to Justin Weinberg for permission to repost it with updates here.

This edition of Artworld Roundtable appears in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Over the last several weeks, we have presented a series of roundtable discussions based on Richards’ “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” AFB has rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they have to say about each question. Richards has provided AFB with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. First was cultural appropriation. Second was how to respect the wishes of dead artists. Third was whether selling out is still possible. Fourth was how to engage with objectionable lyrics. Today we ask whether and to what extent we can separate art from the artist who made it.

The past couple of years have been filled with news about artists and entertainers history of sexual harassment and assault. But the bad behavior of artists isn’t limited to that. Many musicians are outspokenly racist. Some have committed crimes or even murders. And others are just terrible jerks.

How, if at all, should the personal character and moral transgressions of musicians change what we think about, and how we act in regard to, their music?

Whether we can separate the art from the artist is the fifth of “the five hardest questions in pop music”, as described in the Washington Post by pop music critic Chris Richards. Below is the guiding question accompanied by a few examples that Richards finds particularly salient, followed by our contributors’ responses.

Question #5: Can we separate the art from the artist?

1) Many beloved gods of popular song were accused of domestic abuse during their careers, and after their deaths (John Lennon, James Brown, Miles Davis, plenty more). How does the work of “separating the art from the artist” change once the artist is dead?

2) I once heard a podcast with a high-profile music critic who said that he felt an obligation to review the work of a famous pop singer who had recently pleaded guilty to felony assault. This critic believed that engaging with this artist’s work – and all the knottiness that came with it — was the responsibility of a good critic. I think I disagree. I feel that critics do plenty of unseen critical work every day by not writing about a majority of the world’s music – and in this particular case, I don’t think the artist’s popularity meant that his mediocre music automatically merited discussion. Who’s right?

3) A hypothetical: You’ve recently become interested in Scandinavian black metal, a heavy metal subgenre where the lyrics are often completely impossible for any rookie ear to make out. You purchase an album by a particular group, and you enjoy listening to it, week in, week out. Then, months later, you read an interview with the band’s lead singer and learn that he self-identifies as a white supremacist. As an ethical listener, what’s your next move?

Our contributors are (* indicates a revised or rewritten contribution):

Eva Dadlez

So, I’m making a good faith endeavor to introduce my Contemporary Moral Problems students to arguments advanced against for-profit insurance and the contention that it incentivizes turning down claims. To that end, I pop Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko” into the DVR. To my horror, the Miramax logo, followed by “Harvey Weinstein,” scrolls onto the screen. It is too late to fast forward. Crap.

Sexual harassment and misconduct by artists and art producers (Weinstein, Louis C.K., Spacey, Cosby, etc.) have raised questions not only about the film industry, but about how art appreciators should respond to the work of these individuals in light of the disclosures and admissions that have flooded every media outlet. And while “Sicko” is not art, my experience suggested that any work might be considered somehow tainted by association with a miscreant.

At least two distinct questions are at issue here. First there is a practical question regarding the decision to continue consuming the artist’s or producer’s work. This is a question about inclinations to boycott the work of people of whom one disapproves. In many of the preceding cases of performer misconduct, programs have been cancelled by networks in a kind of preemptive strike, prior to any organized protest. Such cancellation (and prospective boycotts as well) are not an indictment of the work, but of the artist or art producer. Programs were cancelled not because artistry had suddenly and radically diminished but because the popularity of the artist had waned for reasons unrelated to artistry.

The second question is less practical but more interesting to an aesthetician. Should our judgment regarding the work or performance itself be affected by such disclosures? Is a film less good if it is produced by a rapist, a role less expertly performed if performed by a harasser, a routine less funny if an exploitative exhibitionist performs it? It depends. More precisely, it depends whether the attitudes that we object to—perhaps attitudes according to which the above mentioned conduct is harmless or playful or permissible—are endorsed in the film or performance. That needn’t mean, of course, that any actor portraying a rapist must be thought to endorse rape or uncritical attitudes toward it. Nor need it mean that such subjects themselves are out of bounds. A work (or performance) might be thought to endorse a problematic attitude toward objectionable sexual conduct when it invites us to imagine conduct of that kind as attractive or funny or arousing or indicative of a turbulent and passionate character unfettered by restraints afflicting ordinary men. So far, that might provide an ethical ground for condemning a work. But many philosophers believe that such endorsements can undermine aesthetic or artistic worth as well.

In “Of the Standard of Taste” David Hume criticized works in which “vicious manners are described, without being marked with the proper characters of blame and disapprobation” (ST 246). We cannot, Hume continues, “enter into such sentiments; and however [we]… may excuse the poet, on account of the manners of his age, [we]…never can relish the composition” (ST 246). This incapacity or disinclination is thought by philosophers like Noel Carroll to identify an aesthetic flaw, for, Hume continues, a “very violent effort is requisite to…excite sentiments of approbation or blame…different from those to which the mind…has been familiarized” (ST 247). That is, the work or the performance may well have failed to elicit the emotional attitudes of enthusiasm or approbation that it undertook to elicit. (Inserting emergency after-the-fact reference here: this kind of imaginative resistance has been productively and provocatively discussed in the blog of philosopher Kathleen Stock, who recently posted “Imaginative Resistance and the Woody Allen Problem”.)

The disruption of imaginative immersion is held by some (though by no means all) to have a conceptual difficulty at its basis. That is, our conception of the limits of moral permissibility may undermine our ability to imagine nonconsensual sex as a deeply satisfying expression of affection, just because we can’t imagine what we can’t conceive. We can, of course, imagine that characters believe their conduct is appropriate, even if we do not. But we cannot imagine it permissible ourselves unless we believe the permissibility of such an action or policy is possible (perhaps in the unusual context the fiction presents, or in an otherwise restricted range of cases), something which strongly suggests that moral (and probably other) attitudes transcend fictional contexts. In other words, works and performances can make us complicit in the attitudes they endorse. The endorsement of attitudes most are inclined to resist might be thought an aesthetic flaw as well as a moral one.

David Heti

As an ethical listener, what’s your next move?

I don’t know what “ethical listener” means.

I don’t know that there is such a thing as an “ethical listener.”

I don’t think that I would want there to be such a thing as an “ethical listener.”

The question to me, really, is kind of a nonsense. That is, I think that I understand what the question is attempting to ask, but then I disagree with what I understand to be its fundamental, underlying assumptions. I think that I disagree with both what the question assumes to be ethics and art; and then, of course, the intersection of the two.

But, that said, adopting what I understand “ethical listener” to mean, I would think that their ought not to be ethical listeners.

Most meaningfully (i.e., that which only is meaningful), if I found out that the band’s lead singer self-identified as a white supremacist, I would continue listening to the music if and only if……I still dug the music.

I don’t think “ethics” enters into whatever it is that draws one to a particular work of art. And I think that one ought to allow oneself to be drawn to whatever art to which they are drawn. There are different kinds of ethical being proper to particular areas of life, and I think that if we were forced to speak of an ethics of art spectator- or listenership, the one imperative would be whaddya think? (E.g., knowing that the lead singer is a white supremacist, a bad tipper, volunteers their Sunday mornings, etc.)

Then, an honest response would be given, and that’s it.

Art’s not here to be ethical. Art’s not here to be anything but good art. And, though what that means is something I am happy not to have to answer, what that certainly doesn’t mean is art is in principle held up, or holds itself up, to standards other than its own (because art =/= ethics).

If art (imperatively) is to be ethical, it is to be ethics. If art (imperatively) is to be political, it is to be politics. (And the same is to be said of one’s attunement to art.)

[I suppose that if I were really to attempt to be what I understand to be ethical in my art-going, then the last art to which I would turn would be that with which I’m in agreement in any way. What could be less ethical than turning only or most to my own community, to the people with whom I already share an understanding or a feeling of the world? That’s for when I go home; for when I want to turn away from art.]

It’s not from any idea of art that emerges the onus being on those who don’t want to separate the art from the artist to be the ones to justify themselves.

All of the above I am okay with being questioned by a piece of art.

Shen-yi Liao

How can you be an “ethical listener”? I am a consequentialist. I doubt that your choices about which songs to stream make any moral difference to the world. We all know Spotify rips off artists anyway. Indeed, in my sterner moods I am sympathetic to the teachings of the original consequentialist, Mozi, who says that the ethical thing to do is to stop making and listening to music, and instead work on sowing grains, planting trees, spinning yarns, and weaving threads. But you and I, imperfect human beings, aren’t going to do that.

When people are suggested to stop listening to immoral artists, there is inevitably the pushback that doing so would make them miss out on some aesthetically worthy things. Behind that pushback is the assumption of aesthetic meritocracy: only aesthetic merits or demerits should determine our allocation of attention and time. Each of us should act like aesthetic meritocrats—promoting the aesthetically worthy and demoting the aesthetically unworthy, while setting aside irrelevant factors like the moral status of the artist.

The assumption of aesthetic meritocracy is ridiculous for imperfect human beings like us. We live in a world where there is an embarrassment of riches. We simply cannot give our attention and time to all the aesthetically worthy things that are out there. More importantly, I doubt that any of us can truly say that we are perfect aesthetic meritocrats, who give our attention and time to only the most aesthetically worthy things. Our limited cognitive and material resources simply do not enable us to do so. I know that I should listen less to 90s emo and more to contemporary hip hop, but old habits die hard. You know your shortcomings too.

For any hypothetical White-Supremacist Swedish black metal band that is worthy, there’s probably a hypothetical non-White-Supremacist Swedish black metal band that is just as worthy. We live in a world where the embarrassment of riches makes this rather likely. So, yes, you will miss out on something good when you stop listening to the White-Supremacist band, but you would also have missed out on something good if you didn’t.

In fact, the social structures of the world makes it very unlikely for us to be good aesthetic meritocrats. Structural forces like colonialism, racism, and sexism make it very likely that many worthy works are simply inaccessible to many people, including us. The same structural forces also make it very unlikely that the works you discover—via popular media, via your friends’ shares, via algorithms’ recommendations—just happen to be the most worthy ones.

It is true that the heuristic of avoiding immoral artists are at odds with the assumption of aesthetic meritocracy. But it is worth reminding ourselves—imperfect human beings in an unjust world—that the heuristics we currently use, consciously or unconsciously, are probably equally at odds with the assumption of aesthetic meritocracy. If two heuristics are about equally problematic at promoting the most aesthetically worthy, but only one has the potential—however small—to be ethically problematic as well, then we might as well adopt the heuristic that is only flawed in one respect.

What about music critics? They too are imperfect human beings in an unjust world. So, for analogous reasons, I doubt that the heuristics that they use to decide which music to write about and which music to not write about does any better at approximating the ideals of aesthetic meritocracy. Given the structural forces of our world, popularity is an especially poor heuristic because it is likely to be both aesthetically and ethically problematic.

Should you stop listening to immoral artists? It probably doesn’t matter, but you might as well.

Stephanie Patridge

Recently, serious allegations of sexual misconduct have been raised against high-profile men, including male artists—e.g., James Tobak, Kevin Spacey, James Woods, Terry Richardson, and Louis C.K—these are, no doubt, not even the tip of the iceberg. Such public revelations naturally lead us to wonder how we, as appreciators, should respond to the creative works of sexually predatory individuals. One answer is that we should withdraw our financial support of these works to signal that such behavior is intolerable, and to undercut one main incentive for tolerating it (money). Still, success here depends on collective action, and given that on its opening weekend Daddy’s Home 2, starring Mel Gibson, outperformed industry expectations, conservative expectations seem warranted. Time will tell.

Still, we might want to know how, when confronted with such creative works, we should respond to the artistic elements of the works. There are two different questions lurking here:

first, might some facts about an artist’s moral character impact the appreciative-relevant features of their artworks/cultural products?
second, should our willingness to engage with these works from an art-appreciative perspective be affected by our knowledge about the creators?

Many will think that the answer to both of these questions is an obvious “no.” After all, Miles Davis, by his own admission, physically abused the women in his life. But, few would think that Kind of Blue is somehow made a worse jazz record by this fact, or that our enjoyment should be thereby disrupted. And, we might think that this generalizes to all such cases. But, the truth is more nuanced than this.

Let’s take Louis C.K.’s recent admission that he routinely masturbated in front of female colleagues. I will not bother to explain the troubling moral nuances of this case, but it is obviously quite bad. In light of this, we might wonder if in this case the answer to either of our aforementioned two appreciative questions might be “yes”. Why might we think that it is? Well, in Louis C.K.’s case, art often imitates life in a way that might be thought to rightly bear on our interpretation of at least some of his comedic and directorial work. After all, masturbation is not an uncommon theme for him. For example, in a stand-up bit about the sexual differences between men and women, he quips, “I cum everyday, and I’ve fucked maybe twenty times in my life.” This line now seems to have taken on a new, perhaps unintended, expressive meaning.

We might say the same about his recent directorial work I Love You, Daddy. Here the main character—who pursues a relationship with a very young show runner, and is said to be thinly veiled nod to Woody Allen—spends an entire scene engaging in mock masturbation in the presence of an unwitting, female actress. Of this scene, film critic Kyle Buchanan says that it “cannot help but evoke some of the stories that C.K.’s accusers have just told.”

In this sort of case, moral facts about the artist not only legitimately affect our appreciative responses, at least some of us are more disturbed and less amused, but we might think that they should. Here, art imitates life in a way that will and should alter our appreciative responses—we will likely find it less funny, or at least funny in a different, more painful way. Moreover, we might find that it also affects our assessment of the appreciative properties and even the merit of the work. Given our knowledge about Louis C.K., I Love You, Daddy is plausibly less funny, and merits being reviewed to less acclaim than it would otherwise. It seems that sometimes facts about an artist’s moral life will affect our interpretation of, attribution of appreciative relevant properties to, and overall evaluation of an artist’s work. (A similar claim likely holds for at least some of Woody Allen’s work.) Of course, all of this is consistent with the thought that Kind of Blue is a noteworthy jazz album, since here there is no plausible claim to be made that we see Davis’ moral life manifest in his work, at least not in any troubling way. There are cases, and there are cases.

Finally, it is worth noting that there may be some moral violations that are a bridge too far, and so merit our rejection of an artist’s work altogether (whatever we’d say about their appreciative properties). This is not a wildly implausible suggestion. We might think that certain egregious forms of racism are like that. For example, we might think that were Hitler’s paintings moderately competent we’d still have a compelling moral reason to avoid responding to them positively. Whether or not Roman Polanski’s raping of female children is one such a violation, does not seem to be a settled moral question. Time will tell.

Matthew Strohl & Mary Beth Willard

In our earlier piece on the question of how we should treat the work of morally bad artists, we argued that the aesthetic value of an artwork is independent of any moral appraisal of the artist, and that the moral badness of the artist does not automatically outweigh the aesthetic value of the work. No artwork is owed anyone’s attention, of course, and if one finds that background knowledge of the moral transgressions of the artist negatively impacts one’s appreciation of their work, it is perfectly reasonable to decline to engage with it further. That said, many artists are horrible human beings, and to dismiss the work of all such artists means foreclosing a whole lot of aesthetic value. We remain committed to the claim that aesthetic and moral value are distinct, and that neither should automatically override the other.

But now we’ve been invited to discuss the question of appraisal in more detail. What general principles govern what the morally decent consumer should do when they discover that an artist whose work interests them has behaved badly? We’ve been asked to consider a scenario where someone discovers that their favorite Scandinavian black metal band turn out to be white supremacists. We think it matters whether or not the music itself actually expresses the artist’s reprehensible beliefs. If one learns that band’s lyrics advocate in a serious way for genocide (let’s say), it’s hard to imagine this not coming to mind while listening, even if the lyrics as delivered are incomprehensible. Some listeners might be able to mentally block out background knowledge of the lyrics’ content in order to keep enjoying the music, but that would have to be some damn fine black metal to be worth the psychological gymnastics. This case is a variant of the stock example of The Turner Diaries, wherein appreciation of the work requires adopting a stance that a morally decent person should be incapable of adopting. Enjoying music often involves some sort of emotional embrace, and in the case in question, one would be emotionally embracing pro-genocidal music. Since a morally decent person should be incapable of doing this, the work’s moral badness becomes its own inoculant.

But suppose now that the lyrics don’t express the artist’s ideology, and so don’t so directly interfere with uptake. Of the two of us, Matt is the black metal fan. The example isn’t such a stretch for him. Many black metal artists have committed horrible crimes. Indeed, the drummer who appears on Matt’s favorite black metal album, Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse, committed an utterly loathsome crime. Emperor’s lyrics are rather abstract, though, and don’t endorse the sort of crime that the drummer committed, and so background knowledge of their content would not so directly interfere with uptake in the way that pro-genocidal lyrics should.

So what should the ethical listener do? If one still loves the music, then the aesthetic value one reaps from listening needs to be weighed against the moral value of abstaining. What are the possible moral upsides to abstinence? The two clearest possibilities are that abstinence supports a general sense of solidarity with respect to the relevant moral principle, and that it is a way of punishing the artist (and possibly preventing them from harming further victims).

Our main worry with both of these possibilities is that they overestimate the importance of private consumption choices. Distinguish three types of cases:

(a) Further engagement with the artist’s work would directly benefit the artist, at least a teeny, tiny bit.

(b) Further engagement with the artist’s work would not directly benefit them, but other people would be made aware of whether or not one engages with their work.

(c) Further engagement with the artist’s work would not directly benefit them and no one would know about it, except perhaps for one’s inner circle and anonymous strangers who happen to be at the same museum.

For those of us who have not succumbed to exclusively using streaming services, a good deal of our engagement with art falls under (c). We listen to albums we already own, look at whichever paintings in a museum are included in our general admission fee, watch movies we bought on DVD years ago, and we don’t go telling everyone about it. Engagement with art that falls under (c) doesn’t do anything to support or damage a general sense of solidarity and doesn’t punish or support the artist. Of course, it’s always possible to turn a (c) into a (b) by getting on social media and broadcasting one’s abstinence. “Hey, I just wanted to let everyone know that I closed my eyes when I walked past a Gauguin painting in the museum, because he was a horrible person.” “Guess who just threw away his blu-ray of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? This guy!”

If that’s your thing, we won’t try to talk you out of it, but we find it clearly ridiculous to suppose that we have a moral obligation to engage in such grandstanding, especially to the point where we would be obligated to throw away our Chinatown blu-rays in order to announce to our small group of social media followers that we have done so.

What about in cases that fall under (a)? This becomes a pretty standard collective action problem. Streaming an album a few times on Spotify puts a negligible amount of money in an artist’s pocket. If enough people do it, it adds up. If one knows that one’s own abstinence will have little or no effect on the consumption choices of others, all it really accomplishes is depriving the artist of a negligible portion of the aggregate. If one believes the artist should be deprived of income as a form of punishment or in order to prevent them from being in a position to harm further victims, then one needs to weigh how important it is to withhold a tiny portion of their aggregate income. We make compromises all the time with respect to collective action problems. Practically no one goes to every possible length to avoid making tiny contributions to big, bad aggregates. While it’s hard to know where to draw the line, no reasonable moral code requires total abstinence from any action that makes a negligible contribution to a large societal problem. It’s possible to be a morally decent person while still sometimes indulging in various conveniences and luxuries that do a tiny bit to harm the environment. Likewise for the case of art consumption: no one is required to make every possible sacrifice of aesthetic value that would have a tiny positive effect on a morally significant aggregate. Watching Chinatown on a streaming service is compatible with a morally upright stance with respect to the importance of combating sexual assault and supporting sexual assault victims.

Not everyone will be so powerless, and some might be in a better position to make a difference. A critic may be justified in deciding that she should dedicate her column inches and pageviews to artists who don’t support genocide. A promoter who organizes black metal concerts has very good reasons not to give white supremacists any hint that their ideology is acceptable to the larger community, and thus would be justified in declining to book the act. But none of this applies to the casual fan.

Setting aside the consequences of private consumption, what about the effect that systematically abstaining (or not) from the work of morally troubling artists might have on our character? Should we develop our characters in such a way that our disapproval of the moral transgressions of an artist drowns out any aesthetic value their work might have? This strikes us as a push toward moral sainthood, and we don’t see it as a desirable ideal. Even setting aside the contingent fact that a lot of great artists are morally bad, we just don’t think it would be a desirable way to go through life. One would have to constantly filter aesthetic experiences through non-aesthetic criteria. One would have to train oneself to be insensible to the spontaneous appreciation of beauty, lest it lead one astray. Touring a museum, one would have to read the wall text and Google the artist before letting oneself appreciate a painting for its aesthetic merits.

No thanks.

Image credit: “Statue of Miles Davis in Kielce” by Jakub Jankiewicz
Edited by Alex King


  1. David Heti: *Wants to separate ethics from art*
    Also David Heti: *Makes normative statements about art*

  2. Answers
    1. Yes
    2. No
    3. Maybe

  3. Moral change with time and culture, so do the interpretation of art.
    Art should be judged by itself and if study of the artist is done, should be measured against the times and society they lived in (and should only be done after death and not judge the descendants)

  4. Q: Shen-yi Liao responds to the claim that refusing to listen to an immoral artist would lead us to miss out on their aesthetically valuable work by suggesting that…
    it is easy for us to refuse to consume a vicious artist’s work because we can find a non-vicious artist who creates similar art.

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