Artist Accountability: What should we do if the people we love aren’t good people?
A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece discussing the issues with separating the art from the artist. If you read that article, you most likely either loved it or it completely pissed you off. If you’re reading this now, thank you for being here. Regardless of what side of the spectrum you’re on, I think continuing a conversation on how we go about interacting with artists is important. There certainly hasn’t been a shortage of artists who do things we don’t morally agree with, and it doesn’t seem there ever will be. Since that piece was published, the mainstream conversation around separating art from the artist and artist accountability has continued. It seems in our current world we can’t go a day without an old tweet popping up or a video surfacing that compromises our heroes. Continuing to dissect how we can be conscious and intentional in our interactions is important in a world that is making it harder to do so.
One of the things I want to emphasize is that the art you decide to support doesn’t automatically make you a good or bad person. That’s not how any of this works. You are neither better nor worse than anyone else just because of the art you choose to give your time, money, and emotional support. Even if many find supporting particular artists to be indicative of something, it is certainly not the only factor.
Sometimes we can’t help the immoral things that we do. “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is a cliche at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less true. If you come from a lower class background, a lot of times all you can actually afford are the corrupt companies. Ethical consumption is not a financial option. It’s a matter of survival for many, but even if it’s not there still seems to be no way out. I myself am currently typing this from a Windows laptop into Google Drive, and I’m sure I would feel sick after 15 minutes of research on either of those companies.
I come down harder on what artists people choose to support because in a world where it is becoming increasingly cumbersome to be ethical, art feels like one of the last places where we haven’t been backed into a complete corner. Sure it’s not completely clean. Hollywood is the furthest thing from progressive, and streaming sites like Apple Music are a part of monopolies that run sweatshops. We as audiences however, can make decisions on who gets our money within those systems. We don’t have to make yet another abuser rich and famous, we have that power. Sure it might not feel like much, but it is a baby step, and every step matters in the fight towards a better world.
The reality that we have to face is that we don’t have to be supporting any particular artist. Kanye West is not holding a gun to your head telling you to stream his music. You won’t die if you never see another Woody Allen film ever again. There is so much art out there in the world right now, and a lot of that accessibility comes from the internet. Take music as one example: right now anyone can listen to any genre, from any country, in any language, from any artist, from any decade of the past century. All of that is right at our fingertips. Despite all this, so many stay exclusive to the few artists they already know and are comfortable with. I’m not saying that any artist or artists can replace Kanye’s Late Registration, but finding new artists can satisfy one’s appetite.
I’m also not saying don’t listen to Kanye West ever. That’s coming from my own personal feelings, which no one ever has to follow. I’m saying that everyone always has another option, which is something to think about. Every person should figure out for themselves what their boundaries are. We should all be asking ourselves, what exactly are my morals? Where do I draw the line? What is too much for me? No human being is ever going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean abandoning all morals once you enter the art world. Knowing who you are and where you stand morally is important as a member of a person’s audience, so what should we do when the people we love and admire do something we can’t support?
Well for one, we definitely shouldn’t immediately write it off and then continue supporting like nothing ever happened. We also definitely shouldn’t uncritically defend the artist immediately just because we like their art. Fans find themselves in a tough spot when an artist does something bad but it’s not always a spot that they will be stuck in. The reality for many fans is that defending an artist from critique is more about themselves than it is the actual artist. Fans/stans base their entire identity off of what they like. When that thing they like is being critiqued, it can often feel like the attack is on them and not the artist. Supporting something or someone that others deem bad makes many feel like they themselves are bad people, and most of us don’t want to feel like we are bad people. To cope with this dissonance, the course of action for many is to defend that thing or person that others deem problematic. How many times have we heard “he didn’t do it” from fans in response to an artist’s abuse allegations. By coming up with excuses, the fan can continue to support an artist without ever feeling bad. This will mean no actual change in behavior on their part, as well as peace of mind.
People model much of their thoughts and behaviors based off of the artists they admire. What happens when the artist a person looks up to and bases their entire identity around is a violent misogynist and abuser? We’ve seen the types of audiences groups like Odd Future have attracted. Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt has even come out and acknowledged how problematic fans of his old music are. He doesn’t want to influence people in that way anymore, and his acknowledgement of that power is incredibly important. Fans need to be aware of that influence as well, and we must be able to talk to one another about when an artist’s actions are not something that should be followed or supported. If we don’t, who knows how many people might carry on the mantle of violence, racism, or whatever else that artist may have done.
A separation must exist in order for nuanced conversation to take place. You are more than what you like. Art plays a profound role in our existence as a person, but as big as it feels, it’s still not everything. No one is attacking you as an individual when they critique someone you happen to like. Most of us on social media don’t even know who you are until you respond with an angry tweet. With that being said, admitting to what one is doing by continuing to support that artist is important. This is especially true when, as mentioned before, your support is not required. Boycotting in the modern age is important less as an economic act, and more as an acknowledgment of yourself, your morality, and your discipline. It’s about choosing to walk in a better world and being more intentional about what it is you are consuming. As unfortunate as it is, the main thing many of these popular artists respond to is money. If their actions meant a legitimate dip in sales, they might actually address what they did and take steps to make amends. This is virtually impossible for bigger names or companies. My personal reasoning for boycotting Disney movies has nothing to do with the actual economic factors. I’m well aware that one person not buying a ticket won’t do anything, my decision is completely personal. It had to do with me recognizing the problems and issues I had with these films, my own history of constantly being surrounded by that media, and deciding to stop consuming that content because it was starting to feel disgusting to me. In this instance, I decided I didn’t want to cave in on what I personally stand by. I don’t listen to Kanye not because I think not streaming him will cause him to end up broke, it’s because his behavior was honestly starting to give me a headache.
This isn’t to say that you have to halt all support of an artist for all eternity, and it’s certainly not the only thing you can do. Letting your feelings be known to the artist and the rest of the world can happen through a single tweet. Being able to admit to the faults of a person whose art you like is important. The things you love don’t necessarily have to come from a saint. It’s much more admirable in my view to be able to condemn the evils of a person whose art you like, rather than unabashedly defending their actions.
I’m not asking for anyone to agree with my opinions on particular artists. There are artists I refuse to support that someone else might feel comfortable continuing to, or vice versa. I’m not here to be a moral judge on what the worst crimes an artist can commit are. I’m not here to draw a line in the sand for everyone reading. I’m here asking that everyone face a certain reality: all of us are most likely supporting at least one artist who has done something that we claim to be completely intolerable. To make matters worse, unlike with other capitalist systems, we don’t have to be supporting them. We are doing so out of our own free will. For some people, the case might be that they stand against violence and abuse towards women, yet they continue to support artists like Chris Brown or R. Kelly. There is no amount of excuses or mental leaps that can be made that will eliminate this clear conflict in our minds. It is a cognitive dissonance. The least we could do is seriously grapple with that fact.
We have a legitimate choice we can make in a situation like this, and it’s the moments where you actually have a choice to make that your true colors can show. Depending on who you as a listener are, the identities you carry, and what a particular person actually said or did, it might end up easier or harder for you to condemn certain artists rather than others. Whether or not what an artist did directly affects you or your community is important to recognize.
Each artist/action should be taken on a case by case basis. No one should rush their decision making process. It’s not about boycotting for change, it’s about not losing your morals for the sake of entertainment and hedonism. Carry the good with the bad, no matter what you decide to end up doing. Be able to critique, and take critiques, on what you like. Nothing will ever get better if we continue to throw our defenses up and ignore when humanity is imperfect. It is precisely in those moments of imperfection that we should be embracing the reality. I really do believe that the world will be a much better place if we are all willing to be more active and conscious in our consumption. Ultimately, if you seriously reflect on what an artist did and you decide to continue supporting that artist, that’s your prerogative. Just don’t do so uncritically, and recognize that that decision will cause tension with others, often rightfully so. I hope every fan/admirer of an artist’s work is able to one day finally see them for who they really are, for better or for worse.
Artists are not gods, they’re just people.