Should we separate the art from the artist? Are we complicit in perpetuating terrible behavior when we elevate talented creatives who also happen to be poor humans?
I'm a classical music professor, which means I deal with a lot of older art, art that was often created by people living in cultures and ethical climates far different from our own. And often, the people I study were not particularly great human beings. Debussy threatened to commit suicide if Lilly Texier refused to marry him, then drove her to attempt suicide five years later due to his infidelity with Emma Bardac. Carl Orff allowed his friend, Kurt Huber, a member of the White Rose resistance group, to be killed by the Nazis for fear of his career being ruined. Two years later, while under interrogation by American intelligence, Orff then claimed to have helped Huber start the very resistance that had gotten Huber killed so he could collect royalties on his work. Richard Wagner was vocally anti-Semitic.
Yet, Debussy is by far one of the most important composers of the early 20th century, Wagner is famous for his operas, and Orff wrote one of the most well-known pieces of classical music, "Carmina Burana." Should we never listen to their work again or even acknowledge its existence? That's a complex question. Even if we never played their music again, the impact it has had on shaping subsequent work is undeniable, and to pretend it never happened would be like pretending a child simply didn't have parents. If you want to understand where subsequent music came from, you have to acknowledge them and understand their role. We can't undo that work's place in history after the fact, especially when further work has been created that is derivative of it.
On the other hand, what we can do, however, is spend the time and research to reach back in the past and find artists that might have been marginalized. Would I prefer to see concert programming embrace other artists? Yes, of course. But that's for a variety of reasons, including the fact that modern composers don't get the exposure they should, partially because the old classics often please donors. But in regards to this topic, I would prefer to hear more marginalized composers, those whose exposure was not proportional to their artistic merit due to the prevailing sociopolitical climate at the time and place their work was created.
On the other hand, what about current creatives? I will not name specific people here, but suffice to say that just like any other industry, there are good people in photography and videography and there are bad people. There are great people. There are terrible people. The photography world has some of the most wonderful people I have ever met, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to know them and call them friends. I have also seen people who are vocally racist, who take advantage of models, who write Wikipedia pages for themselves and tell critics to kill themselves, who sexualize children for their own notoriety and financial gain, who win (and accept monetary prizes) from their own contests — the list goes on and on. There's a lot of disgusting, abhorrent behavior.
The idea of separating the artist from the art was not always around. It emerged mostly as a critical tool of the New Criticism formalist movement in the beginnings of the 20th century. Part of this philosophy was simply to elevate modern work past the inertia of the obsession with classical works. As T.S. Eliot wrote: "I have assumed as axiomatic that a creation, a work of art, is autonomous."
Remember that an axiom that is self-evidently true and thus, cannot be deconstructed by means of logical methods, for it forms the framework by which those logical methods function, and calling it an axiom is dangerous because of just that. It was an attempt to transform criticism from mystical inferences of the intentions of the author to self-contained analysis of the work and only the work.
This might, at least in terms of intention, seem like a great thing. Any piece of art, regardless of the race, sex, social status, privilege, etc. or lack thereof of the creator, should be evaluated from an equal starting point — the creator shouldn't even be acknowledged. It sounds like something that puts all art on equal footing to start. It's a slippery slope, though. First, we can discuss the issue of if all creators are given equal footing and opportunity to put their work into the world, but that's beyond the focus of this article. Rather, in this case, the question is: should we even consider the work of creators who are universally (or nearly) considered to be bad people? Are we implicitly validating the behavior of the creator by allowing them into the current discussion?
Simply put, no, I don't believe we should.
To be clear, I am arguing for the dismissal of creators who have committed egregious acts that are universally condemned and whose behavior we have strong evidence of. There are plenty of examples of rushing to judgment and ruining careers and lives out there, and rarely does the truth that comes out later get the same sort of press; it's simply not as interesting for mass consumption. But when we see a photographer tell a critic to kill themselves, or when we see stories from models about a predatory photographer, or when we see a filmmaker making blatantly racist statements on Facebook and we still allow them in the discussion and we still elevate their work, we are telling them and the world at large that this is okay, as long as your talent exceeds the virulence of your behavior.
This is a dangerous message to send, because it enables a culture that implicitly accepts this sort of behavior. We are saying that as long as you keep producing interesting photos or selling cool tutorials, we will overlook your abhorrent words. And by contributing to that culture, we thereby enable future such behavior.
Certainly, it is sad that we can't expect people to simply be good without the threat of financial repercussions or loss of stature. But there are a lot of people in the world for whom the only motivation is just that. And money and stature are powerful things, especially in the photography world, where your ability to increase one is often dependent on the other. And as such, if we do our part as consumers not to pay money to those who perpetuate that sort of behavior and as professionals by refusing to give them an audience, regardless of their talent, then the idea of success being contingent on talent outweighing behavioral virulence becomes success being contingent on talent and simply being a decent human being. That, in turn, reduces opportunistic poor behavior, because the culture at large no longer accepts it. We are seeing the beginnings of a shift toward this sort of thinking in society at large, and that's a wonderful thing, and we as creatives can do our part too.