Can we separate the Art from the Artist?
Dexter Woolley gives his take on the ever-relevant issue of art versus artist and whether we can or should separate the two
Amsterdam received a mixed reception. Framed for the murder of a war hero’s daughter, a doctor (Christian Bale) and a lawyer (John David Washington), searching for exonerating evidence, uncover an insidious, business-backed plot that threatens American democracy. With its stellar cast and enticing premise, one would have considered the project an easy win for 20th-Century Studios. But, instead, the film feels painfully disjointed: marred by a surprisingly dull aesthetic style, unfocused narrative, and uneven pacing.
Amsterdam sees the big-screen return of controversial writer-director David O. Russell, marking another collaboration with the legend Christian Bale – a surprise after reports of his stepping in as Russell’s verbal and emotional abuse toward Amy Adams worsened on the set of his 2013 Crime/Drama American Hustle.
With its stellar cast and enticing premise, one would have considered the project an easy win for 20th-century Studios
Accounts of Russell’s abusive behaviour seem attached to his body of work, ranging from explosive altercations with George Clooney and Lily Tomlin to a police report of Russell sexually assaulting his 19-year-old niece.
Understanding Russell’s abhorrent behaviour undoubtedly impacts attitudes toward his work. Audiences are confronted with an acute set of problems when attempting to separate David O. Russell from I Heart Huckabees or, for example, Lars Von Trier from his 2000 Musical/Drama Dancer in the Dark. Is it easier to separate the two when the work does not ‘remind’ the audience of the artist’s wrongdoings? Is it different when in front or behind the camera? Is it a product of its time or culture? The issue is undoubtedly complex.
The answer to ‘Can we separate the art from the artist?’ is yes. Through conscious avoidance or a personal decision, the individual can attempt to enter an artwork unfettered by the artist or artistic creation. Theorists such as critic Ronald Barthes have proposed such an approach to engaging with art, with some mid-20th-century theorists minimising the importance of biographical information for ‘understanding’ a text. As a result, books, films, and paintings were less a reflection of the tortured artist and more of a product of culture, language, and the reader. The audience can separate the art from the artist and embrace the art as their own, to stretch and manipulate to their interpretations and desires.
When questioning the relationship between art and artist, New Republic critic Josephine Livingstone wears an explicitly ‘Barthesian’ lens, writing: “I consider Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s movies gifts, to me and to the culture—even when they’re bad—and I’m never giving them back. I don’t want Allen and Polanski to have control over their own legacies or even over their own works.”
To be slightly less academic, we separate products from their producers daily. We participate in a profoundly consumerist culture built around worker exploitation and dangerous resource extraction, yet do not necessarily ‘experience’ or even acknowledge the production process of our everyday products. Thus, is our reception of art a unique experience compared to the reception of food or clothing?
Displaying a willingness to ignore wrongdoing sends a message to artists and those funding them that certain things remain acceptable
‘Should we separate the art from the artist?’ is ultimately a personal choice. The relationship between the individual and the art, the artist, or the events and accusations around the artist, will profoundly affect the individual’s decision regarding their future artistic consumption. Likewise, the challenge of this separation varies on a case-by-case basis. Will we react differently if the artist is still alive? Can the ‘goodness’ of art quell moral concerns? Do they reap the financial benefits of your consumption?
The question, ‘who financially benefits from our attention?’ is the most persuasive point for remaining conscious of art’s production. What is said to an artist, a studio boardroom – or even society – when we elect to look the other way to finance art in ignorance of an artist’s wrongdoings? Suppose I oppose an artist or find them morally reprehensible. Would I want to line their pockets, keep them in powerful positions, and show decision-makers that they and others remain financially profitable? Our ticket purchases and attention are closely monitored and considered when studios and distributors make decisions, for there is a financial link between the art we consume and their artists. Displaying a willingness to ignore wrongdoing sends a message to artists and those funding them that certain things remain acceptable. Without a conscious approach to our attention, the malpractice of a troubled industry will continue.