Separating Art from the Artist

Pretty straightforward title to this post, but it’s something I have trouble with. Sometimes. Perhaps.

There comes a time in every life when an artist responsible for something we love speaks or behaves in a way that we hate. This isn’t anything like a new phenomenon. “Never meet your heroes” is a maxim for a reason.

Now, however, we don’t have to meet our heroes to be appalled by them. The rise of mass media lets foul behavior by popular figures carry as far and wide as the things that made them popular in the first place. I’d argue this is a good thing. The rise of social media carries them even further, and lets us experience that behavior more directly. Still, good thing. Ideally, this should help people keep themselves in check ethically, and think twice before saying something needlessly confrontational or stupid. These are positive impulses.

Then, this past week, Roseanne tweeted a racist joke (and a relatively baffling political one). She did apologize, and that’s nice, but that apology is undercut at least somewhat by her retweeting responses telling her she shouldn’t have apologized. Oh, then she shared a visual version of her original text-only racist joke. Lovely stuff.

Needless to say, that’s appalling. There’s nothing quaint or charming about racism to me, especially at a time when race relations ain’t going so hot. I wasn’t the only person appalled; Roseanne single-handedly created a PR crisis for ABC, the network that had revived her sitcom, and she was cancelled within a matter of hours.

This all makes a kind of logical sense. What makes a bit less sense to me is the fact that…I still respect her.

I’ll explain. I don’t respect her as a person. Not even slightly. I’ve heard nothing about her personal or professional behavior to suggest that she is somebody anyone would want to spend time around, and irony-free racism cements for me, at least, that I wouldn’t want to spend time around her, either.

And yet…I respect her as an artist.

I’ve always loved her show. It was a common point of reference for me during the ALF reviews, when I needed an example of a sitcom done right. I revisted the show over the course of the past year or so, and found that it held up extraordinarily well, even if I didn’t remember it as well as I thought I did. Eventually I got to its final and clearly worst season, and still found things to enjoy.

I approached the recent revived season with a small amount of trepidation, but…well, I kind of loved it. It may well be the single best revival of a dormant property I’ve ever seen. Typically, I don’t think it’s worth going back to a dead show, however much I might miss it. The results tend to range from insultingly poor (Arrested Development) to fine enough but not worth exhuming (Futurama). I’m not sure I’d ever seen a years-late revival that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the original. At least, not until Roseanne.

In a year’s time, two years’ time, ten years’ time, I expect I’ll feel much the same way. Roseanne the show was incredible. It was well written, perfectly cast, often disarmingly intelligent. It was a great and important piece of American television, and if I were to make a list of my all-time favorite shows, I know it would rank pretty high.

And Roseanne the person is clearly a sack of crap.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that her behavior has ruined the show for them. I understand that, and yet I don’t feel it. I found it immediately easy to bring the knife down and shear the artist away from the art. I’ll watch Roseanne again, but I won’t lose sleep if I never hear from Roseanne again.

All of this should be — should be — to say that I’m really great at separating art from the artist, and you should all follow my lead.

But…I’m not. And I’m very curious to hear from other folks about how they usually handle it themselves.

In Roseanne’s case, I find it easy. In many cases, I find it easy. In other cases…I can’t seem to do it.

Another recent example would be Aziz Ansari, whose sexual misbehavior (and tone-deaf response) has absolutely turned me off to his work. I’ll cue up Roseanne at some point, but I feel sour enough on Ansari that I’m not sure I’ll ever be up to rewatching Parks and Recreation.

That seems imbalanced to me, though. Ansari was just an actor in that show. A performer. He read the lines he was handed. Roseanne, by contrast, was the driving creative force behind her show, and the only creative voice that was with it from the beginning to the end, meaning it should have a much tighter connection to who she actually is.

So, hey, I watched Roseanne growing up and Parks and Recreation didn’t debut until I was well into my adult life. Maybe it’s nostalgia at play. Maybe my enjoyment of Roseanne isn’t tarnished because it’s tangled up in so many other positive memories that I don’t want to lose.

But, no. Because John Kricfalusi’s abhorrent grooming of underage sex partners (and his even more tone-deaf response) has unquestionably tarnished Ren & Stimpy for me, and that’s a show I loved far more actively as a child than I did Roseanne. Why can I not separate him from his work?

Perhaps you’ve noticed a common thread to my personal unforgivens: sexual assault. Pretty heinous, right? No wonder I have more difficulty moving past that.

But, again, no. Both Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have been dodging responsibility for their own histories of assault for decades. (Grooming and rape, respectively.) But I like their films. (Well, some of their films.) I enjoy their work. I’ll watch more of it, I’m sure. As an artist, I’ll study it. As a critic, I’ll dissect it. As a viewer, I’ll discuss it. I don’t support Allen and Polanski any more than I’d support Kricfalusi or Harvey Weinstein as human beings, but I can separate them from their bodies of work.

For years I’ve included Bill Cosby’s stuff in the Xmas Bash! just for the sake of mocking it, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to do that with anything Louis C.K. did. I’d rather not even see that guy.


I honestly don’t know. I’m not writing this post because I’ve arrived at some profound conclusion, because I’ve figured out the way my brain works, because this has helped me to more sharply identify the limits of my personal moral compass. I’m writing this because I want to hear from you.

I want to know when you’ve have trouble separating art from the artist, and when you haven’t. I want to know if this is something you’ve ever successfully worked to do in the past. (It’s probably worth mentioning that I haven’t “worked” to arrive at any of the above stances; I have some reaction to their behavior and either do or don’t separate them from their art immediately. It’s not a process; it’s a response.)

Any insight would be appreciated here. Great art is great art and appalling behavior is appalling behavior. In some cases, I can keep them separate. In other cases the weight of one irretrievably sinks the other.

I’d like to know why. I’d like to figure out, to the best of my ability, what is happening in my mind when I can separate them in one case and can’t in another.

What are your examples? Is there anybody out there who separates them in every case? Anybody out there who doesn’t separate them ever?

I’d like to know.

10 thoughts on “Separating Art from the Artist”

  1. Great post Phil. Might sound weird but i was waiting to hear your reaction to this news as i find your thoughts to be some of my favorite, well thought out and rounded of anybody i enjoy reading.

    I try and separate them in every case. I love Jeffrey Tambor and can still enjoy AD or Transparent. I enjoyed Roseanne and still do, even though she seems really unlikable as a person. Cosby i was never a fan of and i still watch Polanski and Allen’s films. I enjoy the art and don’t really find myself getting involved with the artist that much beyond their characters. Maybe that helps.

    Now if Mike Judge or Matt Groening get caught with any sex related offenses i might have to jump off a bridge.

  2. I’m ashamed to say that, in most cases, my relationship to a specific (or body of) work itself is the determining factor in whether I care what the person is accused of doing, and when I’m faced with it, I scramble to find external reasons to separate the two. I have trouble believing the accusations against Woody Allen because of what Moses Farrow has said (which statement itself seems unburdened by (ac)knowledge(ment) of how devious and inventive abusers’ minds can be when trying to hide their acts, but the pattern of behavior he describes from Mia is very convincing); but on the other hand no trouble believing those against Roman Polanski. And I can’t help but notice that the major difference between these men’s work is that I’ve watched at least 15 Allen films and only one by Polanski.

    With Louis CK, I loved how willing he was with his standup to call out every single shitty thing he either had inside him or had let out into the world; finding out that he had used his craft to better himself this way for everything except harming women was such a huge let-down, like I was watching a friend failing himself.

    The one film I’ve out-and-out rejected (stopped watching in the middle of) was Clownhouse, once I read that the director molested the film’s child lead during production. The film itself featured unnecessary shots of this child in his underwear. The film was directly a part of the abuse, and incredibly easy to throw out on that basis alone, because God knows I have no trouble watching films without any merit of their own.

    I would love (love) to be able to separate art from artist every single time, because I am a human and I am a creator and there are terrible things inside me and isn’t that the human condition and isn’t art supposed to capture that? But then money’s involved as well as the people who got hurt. I think it’s terrible that Robert Crumb used, abused, and raped women; I think it’s great that he used his art to analyze and critique himself; I think it’s terrible that he made money off that introspection.

    Philosopher Daniel Dennett coined the phrase “intuition pumps” for little thought experiments that allow for variation in their specifics as a way to sort-of suss out the boundaries of one’s sense of morality/ethics (I’m simplifying). I think everyone making fun of–or scratching their heads at–the Trolley Problem simply didn’t have that purpose explained to them. I think that one emergent quality of the vast spate of public accusations has given us–not a thorough–but a useful set of intuition pumps for sexual harrassment by creators. But the problem is that, well, they’re intuition pumps, not reasoning pumps. This is in no way meant as a criticism of you (because, if it is, it’s a criticism of me) to say that what we’re doing is largely intuition-based.

    I’ve read another writer (the guy who wrote the Garfield TV show, if you must know) say that Christians tend to believe that God’s views line up exactly with their own. And if I ever needed any additional proof of that, it’s the innumerable college students who ask for academic sources to support the paper they’ve already written. The mark, this guy says, of a true believer would be someone who says, f’rinstance “well, I personally think the poor must be the laziest people on Earth; but God says to feed them, so, yes, let’s make sure we draft policy that makes sure they eat”.

    So, as I’m typing this, the question I’m trying to ask myself is: should I devise bright lines for myself, and disengage with a creator’s work no matter how tied to it I felt? May I allow myself mitigating factors such as how much other people put their mark on a work?

    Because I haven’t talked enough yet, I guess, here’s the current state of my thoughts on Roseanne. I read (on Slate, I think?) someone saying that the unifying thread throughout Roseanne’s career has been a brand of in-your-face contrarianism; and one she was rewarded for in a major way through the 1990s. I get the impression that the writers for the original run of the show were deeply committed to the brand of feminism and depictions of working-class life the show embraced, meaning that Roseanne the show very quickly and strongly became so much more than the comedienne. I’d argue that the list of Roseanne Barr’s personal axes to grind was largely exhausted somewhere during season 3, where the rest of what the show had built was there to fill in any gaps (I’m simplifying). The world changed on her in the meantime, putting her on different sides of the argument at different times because her MO hadn’t changed. Being this far removed from Roseanne’s standup, or from direct interaction with her personal online output, it’s hard for me to gauge how much of the show was her, and how much was everyone else. But I’d put my money on the rest of the cast and the writers being what really, really made her show work so well for so long; and that’s what I refuse to try to disengage from now that Roseanne’s behavior got the show cancelled.

  3. Ohhhh, so often lately I’ve had to do this.
    It came out that my favorite painter murdered someone, and after giving it some thought, I realized that it might have added a different light to his work, but no one seems to really know much about the murder ir the victim, so it was easy to detach. Caravaggio may have been a real piece of shit in life. I don’t know. We know so little of him. But I’m still a fan.
    Gauguin, I loathe and abhor. I don’t care for his style, so when I found out he was a creeper asshole, it was that much easier to hate him.
    I skipped Aziz. It came at the height of #metoo and as a female who knew how other females are typically treated, I was overwhelmed by the tide of confessions and non-apologies, and I couldn’t bring myself to read another. Like “Roseanne,” he made an excellent show with talented people who benefited from the experience. Even if they never make another “Master of None” episode, I’m confident that Lena Waithe will have a productive career beyond.
    No… my problem artist is Louis CK. I liked his work. I liked his show. I thought he was a decent parent. And then…
    The thing that kills me most is that one line. He said it to his “television daughter.” “If somebody tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.” It was applauded and memed and shared far and wide. It resonated with me because sociopaths and manipulators are drawn to me and make me their plaything, and here was a guy who got it! You can’t treat people like shit and then deny it to their face!
    And now I’m stuck.
    Do I rail against him? Do I pick out the parts I liked and discard the rest? Should I watch his show again? (Doubtful.) Did he even write that line? Did someone else? If someone else did, did he believe in it, or did he just think it was a good line? Or was he just reading a line in a script?
    In the end, I think we end up choosing who to stick with (in whatever fashion) and who to ditch, and in each case, it is a personal decision. And not always logical.

  4. Great article Phil, you really have a knack for writing lengthy pieces that I really do want to read all the way to the end, kudos.

    On the topic at hand, I can’t pinpoint it down to one thing but I think I can cut the artist away from the person if they’re surrounded by a cast I have an attachment to. I haven’t seen the new season of Roseanne but I likely will due to the fact Sara Gilbert and John Goodman are in it. I can probably rewatch Parks and Rec due to Amy Poehler, Chris Pratt and Aubrey Plaza’s amazing performances in that show.

    Though I wouldn’t watch Louis CKs show or his stand up because he’s the only thing I associate with that show, same with Ren and Stimpy, outside of John Kricfalusi I don’t have an attachment to anyone else in that show.

    So maybe it’s something along those lines? It’s making more sense to me now that I am typing it out.

  5. One of the things I always think of when this subject comes up is Josey Wales. The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales/Gone To Texas is a fucking great read. The author Forrest Carter though — I would giggle at if I saw him being eaten by dogs (if he hadn’t already been worms and dust when I was born).
    If you’re not familiar his real name was Asa Earl Carter. He wrote speeches for George Wallace, formed his own “White Citizens” group (he had to form his own after he was given the boot for being too anti-Semetic on a White Citizens funded radio broadcast — they just wanted him to talk shit about black people apparently), was involved with the klan, wrote a pro-segregation periodical, and took his nom de plume from Forrest Bedford. He’d later try to act like he wasn’t Asa Earl Carter even though it was more fucking obvious than that Chris Gaines was Garth Brooks. I mean this fucking creep had ran for governor a couple years before he started making this claim. It was pretty much like a stupid little kid who blames the shit he’s done on an imaginary friend.
    To up the shittiness, he’d go on to claim he was essentially Pierce Brosnan’s character in Grey Owl and was raised by 2-D “noble savage” grandparents that didn’t really exist. He wrote this “auto-biography” and it’s gone on to some acclaim. Oprah recommended the book, but, after learning that it was bullshit, removed her endorsement. I’ve heard it’s a good read, but I’ve never read it.
    Fuckface Carter would then go on to die from a heart attack while having a fist fight with his son.

    It’s pretty clear he’s the worst, right? I still love Gone To Texas though and I love a lot of other books and music created by awful creatures. I still love television and film from awful creatures most of the time, but I think it might be easier to take in art tainted by its creator when you’re receiving their voice or the voice of their writing without seeing their face.
    One of the evolutionary advantages we had over neanderthals were eyebrows due to how much they helped communicate about a person — raised to indicate a non-threatening intention, lowered to indicate the opposite, etc. — and I think it’s become ingrained to connect through the face. Just think of how less impact a missing person notice would have without showing a face.
    So now when we’re confronted with these creeps we’ve held in high regard, we see their god damn face and feel more of a connection to their actions and, I think, maybe that’s why, with social media and most of our cultural icons being public and visually everywhere, this has become much more of an issue.

    I think it’s probably a good thing to do your best to just separate art from the artist, because I imagine the person who invented the chair and the person who figured out how to get seeds out of bananas were probably terrible people too, but we should all enjoy chairs and bananas. Yet, I think it’s really important that we continue discussing this and shedding light on assholes and forcing better expectations on our culture. On a hopeful note, I think maybe we’re getting a little better even though it doesn’t always seem like we are.

    Sorry for the rambly-ramble.

    With all my love,

  6. I love how each of us responding have our own set of personal examples of “art we like being made by shitty people”. For me, I gotta bring up Hitchcock and Kubrick. Several of my favourite films… made by guys who mistreated women on (what some would categorise as) an industrial scale. Is there much difference between what Hitchcock did to his leading ladies and what Wienstein did? I’m 100% not the person to be answering such questions, but I can still watch Rear Window or Man Who Knew Too Much and be as enamoured as ever.

    Could it be that the actual instances of “horrible shit” these people commit runs against the values the works they’re best known for espouse? Like, The Cosby Show was about wholesome family togetherness. The mother and the daughters on that show were characters who had agency, motivations, and whose battles we had a stake in. Show-Cosby was about caring for these women who were people first (mostly. It was a pretty patriarchal, but still). For me, Cosby’s offences are a betrayal of that very ethos. On the other side, Kubrick’s films deal with a lot of stuff but he never, really, goes to bat for women. Like, I can see the guy who made Full Metal Jacket and Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut being a prick to women, being kind of a perv, and it doesn’t lessen the message of any of those movies.

    Roseanne’s most recent behaviour hasn’t been what turned me off of her, it’s her complete flip from left to right that have made me dislike the show. Someone who was strongly defiant of the bullshit in the system in the 90’s, who was a proponent of womens rights and the left in general, has become a complete right wing freak circulating the absolute worst of the right’s brainwashing and conspiracy theories. I don’t think “what she’s done” is the worst thing, it’s “what she’s become”, and seeing her – old episodes or new – just reminds me of that. I don’t think I’ll ever go back and watch Roseanne again. She’s poisoned the well, as it were. Salted the earth.

    As have the men from Arrested Development. Though I wonder how I/we’d feel if Roseanne was a guy… I expect the media treatment would be a little different…

    And this kind of “cherry picking” of who we disown for shitty behaviour and who we simply ignore, or even tolerate, is exactly how it becomes so pervasive. No one should be hiring Woody Allen to direct traffic, let alone make a feature film, but modern day actors are still falling all over themselves to be in his next movie. And dammit if I don’t think Annie Hall is a pretty great little movie.

    1. Can you elaborate on the Kubrick name dropping? I’ve heard nothing scandalous coming out about him.

      1. It’s fairly common knowledge that he was a prick to the women in his movies as far as I recall. I’ve not gone too far down the hole, though I’ve not been lead to believe it’s as shitty as Hitchcock. Shelley Duvall in The Shining is the most obvious example. As far as I’m aware it’s not “casting couch” shit or some such, there’s just a disinterest and a misogynistic bent that lead him to treat women poorly on set, as well as three marriages with varying levels of success.

  7. Roseanne and Cosby are both artists whose work I’d really enjoyed in my youth, but in both cases, as I’d grown older, I found that they didn’t work for me any more and I even started to be actively bothered by a lot of the messages underlying their comedy (For Cosby, the amount of his material that seems to ultimately come down to implicitly giving white people permission to believe harmful stereotypes so long as they make an exception for “the good ones” like nice Dr. Huxtable who agrees with you that young black people should pull up their damn pants), long before the recent revelations.

    With Aziz Ansari and Louie CK, I had never gotten into them in the first place because there was a nebulous “something” about them that just didn’t feel right to me. So I kinda was building up an idea that maybe my subconscious knew more than I did about which people not to trust.

    But Garrison Keillor was a pretty serious blow. That one, I didn’t see coming. And when it happened, you’d totally expect him to diffuse it with a folksy story that played off the accusations as a series of unfortunate misunderstandings that made him look like a goofy old guy who ought to have known better, but had ultimately just been stupid and awkward, but not abusive. And instead, he gave the same damn faux-pology and limp denials as ALL THE GUILTY PEOPLE DO.

    I’ve got decades of his back-catalogue I’d always meant to get to, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to want to now.

    But I do look forward to seeing Sandy Duncan return to TV this fall in “Roseanne’s Family”.

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