Arts, Column

Emerson: Appreciate the Art, Not the Artist

With the upcoming release of the 11th studio album from Ye, formerly Kanye West, the relationship between Ye’s reputation and the album’s success may not be at the forefront of fan’s minds. After his continued tirades full of controversial opinions and outright anti-semitic ideas, I’ve been pondering an important question: can you separate the art from the artist?

When I approached this discussion, a slew of artistic disciplines and successful yet controversial artists came to mind. 

The prevalence of “cancel culture” makes it hard to find successful artists without tainted reputations. Armie Hammer is possibly a cannibal, and sent some pretty disturbing DMs back in 2021—does that still mean you can love him in Call Me by Your Name? Can we still enjoy “Forever,” by Chris Brown, who is known for his domestic violence history, when it comes on during the pregame? Even stars like Taylor Swift find themselves explaining unsavory homophobic lyrics from their earlier songs.

My short answer—yes, I believe you can separate the art from the artist.

The feeling of enjoyment you experience while interacting with a work of art, a movie, or a song, is often distanced from the creator. Appreciating art is a connection between your own feelings and the artwork itself, and the artist doesn’t have the same importance as the art. Plus, it’s easy to become caught up in the ignorant bliss of enjoying art or media, especially when you lack the knowledge of its unfortunate subcontext or problematic creator.

I personally love the movie Midnight In Paris, simply because I loved the experience of watching Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams act in a romantic comedy set in the dreamy city of love. My lack of knowledge about Woody Allen’s incestual relationship with his formally adopted daughter meant Allen’s reputation wasn’t a factor in my opinion.

I can apply the same concept to artist Paul Gauguin. You might recognize some of his portraits and landscapes from his vibrant use of color, or his recreation of scenes from French Polynesia. 

Gauguin is widely regarded as an artist who helped spearhead the post-impressionist movement, and is celebrated for his simplified forms, innovative patches of color, and lack of dimension. Gauguin also spearheaded the “primitivism” movement, which was characterized by the artistic obsession to portray a civilization that was deemed less civilized, meaning simply just not westernized cultures.

How is the average person supposed to know about his countless sexual offenses?

At face value, Gauguin’s paintings give the viewer a sense of serenity and intrigue, as one becomes entranced by his color theory and depiction of the Tahitian people. His beautiful paintings hardly reflect the person he was. Gauguin often took advantage of the civilians he painted, both fetishizing and sexually abusing his young female subjects. 

Today’s current art history world is presented with this exact same question of whether or

not we are able to separate Gauguin and his artistic achievements from his crimes against humanity. Is it right to look at depictions of Gauguin’s 13-year-old “mistress” and regard the work as an artistic achievement? 

I think the truth lies in the fact that while Gauguin and his disgusting actions are fading into the past, his art and its importance is not. Gauguin’s legacy takes the form of artwork hanging on the walls of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay, where onlookers come to appreciate the beauty of his work, often without the full picture. Gauguin’s success and legacy is unavoidable and unerasable despite his problematic past. 

That being said, this horrible background should not, and cannot, be ignored. 

This is where it gets tricky, because for example, in Gauguin’s case, I don’t think someone should even look at his paintings of French Polynesia without knowing the ways Gauguin took advantage of the Tahitian population, yet most people aren’t aware of this background when viewing his paintings.

I think that because it’s so hard to ignore Gauguin’s innovation, we must continue to discuss and develop a broader discussion of Gauguin’s faults, and eventually, of the relationship between art and its artist. We can’t ignore art of any kind, just because of its creator’s poor connotations. Instead, we need to acknowledge the bad to reach reality and complete understanding.

Now back to today—to Hammer, to Ye, to Allen. True art and innovation will

stand the test of time, and will be recognized and appreciated. I’m not saying I’m a diehard fan of Ye or that I agree with anything that comes out of his mouth—I am saying you can’t control your reaction to Ye’s new album, but you can control your love of Ye. 

Your opinions on the art are based on personal experience and the emotion you feel when interacting with that art, and not the artist. As hard as it is to admit, bad people can do great things. 

Ye’s music is innovative, creative, and honestly, hits just right when you’re on the treadmill. In the future after Ye has passed on, his music and his legacy will still exist. It’s within the individual’s responsibility to decide where the memories of his anti-semitic words fit into their personal view of him.

February 4, 2024

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