Study Hall: ‘Is it OK to Listen to Problematic Artists?’

I read about everything with Taylor Swift and her racist ex-boyfriend and I was wondering if I shouldn’t listen to her anymore?

I love this question because it’s something my friends and I contemplate whenever an artist or celebrity does/says something egregious or conflicts with our values: Can we separate the art from the artists? Should we?

This doesn’t pertain to just literature, music, or movies. Sometimes, the art in question is companies or social justice movements, and the artists are influencers, activists, CEOs, or other leaders.

It’s not always a simple answer. Sometimes, our emotional connection to the art, even the artist, conflicts with our morals, forcing us to re-examine this attachment and reasoning behind this relationship/admiration. 

When news broke out about Bill Cosby, folks had, and still have, a hard time dissociating his “America’s Dad” and TV persona who was like a father figure and his philanthropy work from the man who “used his enormous power, fame, and prestige” to sexually assault women. 

The Harry Potter book series was a source of comfort and acceptance for many young readers, including queer and trans youth who felt like outsiders or lost in their everyday lives. It was a magical world of possibility with a protagonist whose story resonated for some. Only to find themselves, years later, grappling with the author’s transphobic views. For some, it became an opportunity to move on and focus on their own community, reading and uplifting stories that represented them and the new generation of queer and trans young readers.  

It’s important to note that not every indiscretion should be passed through an absolute virtue test. Nor should we hold others to a higher moral standard than we hold the people in our lives, including ourselves. But if something a person or artist does sours them or the art/work for you, you should explore it and ask yourself:

• Does the artist’s beliefs or behavior go against my existence, lived experience, or morals?
• Is the act or transgression of the artist connected to the art, in the message, and/or making of it (e.g., R. Kelly)? Am I OK with being complicit or associated with such conduct? Is my engagement condoning it?
• How does the artist benefit from this engagement? Does it allow them to profit, become more famous, or stay relevant? Am I OK with that?
• How does the artist benefit from their unethical or immoral decisions? Did that get them to this position of power?
• Have they apologized and taken responsibility/accountability for their actions? Have those aggrieved (victims or targets) accepted this?
• Is the art/work important or relevant because of the artist? Or can I engage with and support this art/work without endorsing them?
• Is the art really worth the harm the artist has created?

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