Where Does the Art End and the Artist Begin?

By Teresa L. ’19, Ellisya L. ’19, and Katie T. ’19

We often wish that our decisions and principles could be black and white. It’s an uncomfortable and scary reality that our morals, which guide our actions, might not always give us an easy answer. Nowhere is this confusion more apparent today than in individuals’ responses to the art of artists who have done wrong. Can the importance of an artist’s work and contributions to his or her discipline outweigh his or her harmful actions? Is there a way to appreciate his or her art while condemning his or her behavior, or is to admire the art to condone the artist? Now more than ever, Winsor and the world are grappling with these questions.

The content of Winsor English curriculum is always evolving; every year, the course materials change as new books are released, new courses are developed, and new details about authors are revealed. Unlike quantitative courses, in which the content that is taught is largely out of the hands of Winsor faculty, English teachers must wade through an enormous body of work to select a few novels, poems, or short stories to introduce to students. And unlike in a history class, in which learning about immoral figures is to be expected, the texts in an English course are meant to represent the most significant and admirable work available.

The English department wrestles with these issues every year when designing its courses. “On the one hand, we expressed a desire to separate the art from the artists and a desire to teach the texts that best suit the curriculum, but on the other hand, we wondered what message it might send to students if we hold up these authors’ works,” Ms. J., head of the English department, said of the department’s discussion of this dilemma. “We realized that we often choose texts for what they contribute to the curriculum but that we don’t always know that much about the personal lives of the authors… We have removed certain texts from the curriculum in the past as a result of learning more about the author’s behavior.”

Generally, the department has chosen to get rid of texts that are easy to replace. For example, clips from The Cosby Show that used to be featured in a Class V unit about the African-American community in art were easy to take out because of the abundance of other shows that could serve the same purpose. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, who has recently been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, was also removed when the Class VI curriculum as a whole was reimagined. However, these examples do not suggest that a widespread policy has been adopted: “There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions,” said Ms. J.. “Each [case] needs to be considered individually, I think.”

Mr. B., who discussed these issues in his African history class last year, believes that these decisions will change based on the specific viewer as well as the specific artist. For him, The Cosby Show was incredibly important entertainment while growing up; while there may be substitutes for individual pieces of art in a curriculum, that’s not the case in a person’s life and memories. If someone grows up loving a show, it can be extremely difficult to give up that art. “In the end, I’m not saying to look past [an artist’s offenses]. If the only thing you can see or think about when you look at that artwork is that person, then you can’t engage in it,” he explained. “But if the art means something more to you than that one person, then I think it’s worth engaging.”

In her junior elective on urban literature, Ms. Chase has chosen to continue to teach Junot Díaz’s short stories, despite allegations of sexual harassment that Díaz himself confirmed. “I heavily debated whether to keep Junot Díaz’s stories in the course,” remarked Ms. Chase. “On one level, it would have been easy to cut them because they take up only three classes’ worth of time and attention. But then I thought that, on another level, they bring something interesting to the course—something I haven’t found in another text—and that leaving them in provided for a really important conversation about our values.”

What is the framework for that conversation? Díaz’s short story, “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie),” includes the sexualization and objectification of girls, but Ms. Chase chose to contextualize the story by directly juxtaposing it with Judith Ortiz Cofer’s work, which expresses the feelings and pain of survivors of sexual harassment. Ms. Chase also explained Díaz’s background and actions to her students and plans to ask them for their opinions on the dilemma. She intends to ask the following questions during discussions of the texts: “Should we, in choosing a text, consider the author’s behavior? How do we weigh that behavior against the value of the text? Are there some behaviors so bad that we must exclude an author’s work out of hand? If so, where do we draw the line?”

Indeed, these seem to be the central questions to the debate on whether a person’s negative behaviors change all aspects of his or her life and the work that he or she produces, and whether sexual harassment, abuse, or rape are crimes so awful that the entire person is undoubtedly as evil as those actions. In the cases of Alexie and Díaz, both authors have advocated for respect and support for the minority groups to which they belong. Moreover, before reframing the Class VI course around another theme, the English department had originally decided to keep Alexie’s work in the curriculum. Class discussions and debates surrounding these decisions are important to have as they force students to wrestle with both sides. “We believe kids can handle the cognitive dissonance of having heroes [or] celebrities not being perfect, of admiring and being appalled by someone,” said Ms. J. “Having them grapple with these complications is valuable.”

Many students are beginning to form opinions regarding controversial artists outside of the classroom. Some believe that boycotting artists that are still alive is essential because it is one of the few tools members of the general public possess to punish them for their wrongdoing. It is often acknowledged that the survivors of sexual assault and harassment must live with the horrible memories and trauma for the rest of their lives. Shouldn’t the perpetrators suffer similarly? And if so, don’t we have the obligation to make sure that they are punished for their actions by all means possible? By studying and appreciating their work, aren’t we allowing them to move past the irreparable?

The answer to all of the above questions is yes, according to Sophia B. ’19. “In my opinion, you cannot separate an artist’s personal life from his or her art,” maintained Sophia. “When you support someone’s art, you support the person who created it… I used to blast XXXTentacion’s songs in the car, but when I found out the extreme acts of domestic violence he had committed, I stopped listening. It’s as simple as that.”

XXXTentacion, also known as X, was an American rapper, singer, and songwriter who was killed in Florida during June 2018. His music met critical acclaim and commercial success, with albums and songs topping the Billboard charts. However, he also committed horrendous acts of domestic violence. After his death, there was not only an outpouring of grief at the loss of a gifted artist but also a sense of confusion on how and whether to mourn his death in light of the hurt he had caused.

“Over the course of his entire life, X only served one year in prison for gun possession,” added Abby G. ’19, in agreement with Sophia. “Not only did he suffer almost no consequence for his actions, but he was also… being praised by thousands for his lyrical and musical genius… But the value of his music is countered by his character. When you’re a fan of an abuser, you’re not just listening to their music. You’re giving that artist money and exposure to a broader audience.”

Mr. B., on the other hand, argued that continuing to consume an artist’s work does not mean that you support the artist’s actions. Regarding the issue of financially supporting an artist through the consumption of their art, he stated, “You’re not giving him [or her] money because of [his or her actions], you’re giving him [or her] money for [the] art.”

Kaylee C. ’19 also raised a different opinion: she feels that X’s music still holds value to its listeners, particularly in his messages about mental health, although she struggles with her decision to continue listening. “When X makes haunting music about depression and suicide, he’s creating an intimate, personal, and searching relationship through his music—a relationship with a profound impact that might not be there if he wasn’t addressing these intense feelings,” she remarked. “[His lyrics] may make [a] listener’s depression and anxiety feel real and valid in a world that is terrible about discussing mental health.”

Kaylee also cited a video in which X talked about what he hoped would be his legacy. In this video, he stated, “I know my goal in the end, and I know what I want for everyone, and I know what my message is. So I just wanted to say I appreciate and love all of you and believe in you all… Do not let your depression make you.” “While so much of what he said was not worth quoting,” stated Kaylee, “perhaps [that] is.”

“The challenge is that art is still valuable,” said Mr. B. “The art could have a redemptive quality. I believe that deeply flawed people can create great work. I believe that deeply flawed people do create great work that we need to engage in. I think that there’s something you can look at deeply in those works, that you can engage in, while still calling out the artists… The most important thing is to talk about it.”

Ultimately, we do not live in a world of clarity, and these issues will not always be easy or simple. Sometimes, we will not watch or listen or read. Other times, we might find that that art is still deeply moving and beautiful and choose to engage. All of us must struggle through the reality that people can do harm to others and create significant art. But, most importantly, we must both recognize that responses and decisions will vary and respect the individual experiences that drive each of us to our personal reactions.