Art and the artist.. and the audience
The question of separating art from a controversial artist is not new. Unfortunately, for us audience, this can leave some of us feeling a little guilty — especially if we still find ourselves enjoying their creations.
Hogwarts Legacy, the much anticipated Harry Potter game, came out a couple of days before this article was written. If you were a future anthropologist trying to figure out how humans felt about this release, you’d probably be left confused. I’m sure most people reading this have already heard/read/seen more than enough about the public backlash against J. K. Rowling’s comments on transgender rights, so I won’t recap it all here. Regardless of how you feel, I would just like to point out the irony that Harry Potter has now been condemned by groups both on the political right (for anti-Christian magic) and the political left (for Rowling’s anti-trans comments). Though many of us fell in love with the Harry Potter universe before, or perhaps even despite the controversy, we might now find ourselves in the ever-awkward position of asking “can I separate this art from the artist? Am I still allowed to enjoy this?”
The question of separating art from the artist is definitely not new. For example, 1869’s Richard Wagner (whose musical ‘leitmotifs’ directly precursor most film and game music) could’ve been good friends with 2023’s Ye (Kanye), bonding over their shared antisemitism on the Alex Jones show — maybe they could’ve even bonded over music a little too. And while it is very easy for us to detest their views, it is practically impossible for us to rip their influence out of the history of their art form. Unfortunately, for us audience, this can leave some of us feeling a little guilty — especially if we still find ourselves enjoying their creations.
One of the biggest arguments for abandoning the art of an artist comes down to financial support. This actually makes a lot of sense. If you listen to Ye’s music on a streaming service, he is still earning royalties from that. If you purchase Hogwarts Legacy, J. K. Rowling is still earning royalties from that. However, these people are not the only people involved in these creations. They are not the only people making a living from these creations. When the sitcom Rosanne was cancelled after Rosanne Barr’s racist tweets, the entire cast and crew was punished. I am not arguing for or against this specific cancellation, but I do think it is worth recognizing why it is so hard for us, the audience, to know what to do.
Each of us have to come to our own conclusions when it comes to choosing whether to still engage with the art we love, even if we hate some of the surrounding circumstances. I personally take solace in knowing that the one name in the limelight is never the only name that contributed to that art — and hopefully not the only name that benefits from it. Due to our narratives of history, and due to the way that our systems of intellectual property work, single people are immortalized as “geniuses” and given all the credit. When these geniuses fail, they fall quickly from our heroes to our villains. It is worth exploring how great ideas actually spring up from the cross-pollination of different people’s ideas across culture itself, rather than the product of a single great mind or artist. Whether art like the Wizarding World, or science like Newton’s Principia Mathematica, there is always more work done, conversations had, and ideas shared behind the limelight - by others in addition to the person whose name is on the front cover. Break through that myth of single “genius,” and you may just be able to enjoy Harry Potter again.