Can you separate the art from the artist?

By Cleo Thompson

Controversial actor Shia LeBeouf.

In recent years, the ethics of cancel culture has been an ongoing discussion in the entertainment world. It has created conflicts among consumers and varied people’s morals, being eager to do the right thing. However, the conflict of separating the artist from their art is a broader discussion than the eager righteousness of 14-year-old performative activists. It lies in the hands of the industry, the people with actual power. 

The entertainment industry has shown us time and time again that the scandals of their employees are not enough to take them out of the light. As long as corporations can profit off of celebrities, they are allowed to perform for the world, rarely facing any consequences. However, the court of public opinion may have a different reaction, taking this decision into their own hands, which begins with  deciding whether or not they can stomach the wrongdoings of their favorite celebrities. But this is asking too much. The benefits that the arts provide blind these consumers, because they do not understand the economic support these stars are or are not receiving. 

Let’s look at the music industry, for example. Artists such as Travis Scott, Kanye West, and 6ix9ine have all done problematic things, such as making derogatory comments towards women and being inconsiderate towards the well-being of their fans. How could someone with any morals possibly just “ignore” their wrongdoings? Unfortunately, many do because it is so easy. If these artists’ fans have pre-established creative connections to these artists, it’s incredibly easy to put in earbuds and stream their music nonetheless, which is fine until those artists are directly benefiting from the streams of their music. 

One of the most popular music streaming platforms, Spotify, pays the artists for each stream. The payment is between $0.003 and $0.0084 per stream, with an average payout of $0.004 per stream. This amount doesn’t seem like a lot, and for many, it is not, but for an artist getting millions of streams a day, it all adds up very quickly. Some people believe that the numbers don’t even matter, that these problematic artists will gain fame regardless. But to make an actual change, the bigger picture needs to be considered. 

We can also look at the movie industry. The scandals of actors are similar to those of musicians. However, it is harder to single out one specific actor for the benefits they receive from their career. A significant accumulation of people put movies and productions together, so if consumers stop streaming that movie because of the wrongdoings of one cast member, everyone who put in hard work for that product will also reap the detriment. A hypothetical solution to this was practiced by Netflix when Shia LaBeouf, a cast member of Pieces of a Woman, was accused of domestic violence in 2019. Netflix’s response was to remove Shia LaBeouf’s name from the credits and promotional material of the movie. Now, he could expectantly make less money and gain minor fame from his work. However, even with these steps taken, many consumers understandably still cannot stomach the iniquity of his actions (possibly because of personal experiences or out of recognition for the victims of the situation), resulting in minimized streams of the movie. 

On the other hand, one can also argue that it is unfair to take the choice away from the consumers. A scandal that one person can’t stomach could be one that someone else can. This takes away the freedom of choice, which could upset people even more than the success of someone who doesn’t deserve the support. It’s hard to establish a median that makes most people happy, including the consumers, the artists, and the industry itself. 

This debate is very dependent on the specific circumstance, and another situation people need to take into  account is if the artist is dead. If there is no way for the actual artist to reap the benefits of people consuming their art, this seems to eliminate a lot of the controversy. However, this is a perfect example of singling out the moral integrity itself and the questions we must ask in order to stomach or not stomach the wrongdoings of the artist. 

This discussion creates circles and disputes because of direct disagreements and the dependence on specific scenarios and particular consumers. There is no one way to convince society to do “the right thing”, because there is no clear “right thing” to do. But above all, the industry does have greater power for making this decision for us. If there was a clearer lens to look through, one that isn’t fogged with greed and profit, artists could correctly face the consequences of their actions. Once the industry understands this, is when real change can happen. Until then, while the power is still in the hands of the consumers, it’s critical to educate ourselves on specific situations and not only listen to the voice of these artists singing our favorite song but also those of potential victims sharing their stories. This way, we can make unbiased choices on whether you think it’s essential to separate the artist from their art.