I’ll be honest: I’m tired of talking about Kanye. I should promptly clarify, lest I attract the disdain of every college-age white boy who has chosen the defense of Kanye’s genius as his hill upon which to loudly and obnoxiously die, that my tiredness has nothing to do with the man’s music. I don’t know nearly enough of Kanye’s discography to make any sort of educated argument about it, and moreover I like the songs that I do know. (As a global populace, we must have been doing something right in order to deserve Watch the Throne.)
Kanye’s music isn’t my problem, and Kanye’s music also isn’t the genesis of most of his recent appearances in pop culture news media. Donda 2, the rapper’s latest effort, released last month exclusively via Kanye’s Stem Player audio device, saw considerably less buzz than its highly anticipated predecessor. In fact, one might argue that the sharp spike in Stem Player sales prompted by Donda 2’s release constituted a bigger story than the content of the album itself. All the same, for anyone with even a mild pulse on pop culture trends, Kanye’s name in recent weeks has been inescapable. His dramatic split from Kim Kardashian, subsequent flings with actress Julia Fox and behavioral health professional Chaney Jones, and public threats against actor Pete Davidson form the tip of an unendingly newsworthy iceberg. Kanye’s incessant and unabashed social media presence has done nothing to desensationalize the tumult. At one point, his online behavior became so erratic as to prompt him to reassure fans that his account had not been hacked. (The vehicle for this reassurance—a photo of Kanye, stone-faced and holding a handwritten note bearing that day’s date—could have just as easily passed for proof of life in a hostage case.)
Such a convergence of personal crises would seem extreme even in melodrama; against the verve of tabloids, any album grows dull and static. A staple head-scratcher in discourse of the digital age is the question of whether one can, or should, “separate the art from the artist”—and perhaps no single creator calls this question to mind more than Kanye West.
I know, I said I was tired of talking about Kanye. I still am, but I’ll accept any accusations of hypocrisy that the three preceding paragraphs prompt. And I want to say one more thing before I leave Kanye and his explosive inner circle to the gloss-coated magazines best-equipped to write about them. Mental illness does not excuse actions, nor does it always wholly explain them, and I lack any qualifications needed to give Kanye any sort of diagnosis. Even so, Kanye has spoken openly about his struggles with bipolar disorder, such that discussion of mental illness, in coverage of his recent brazen and turbulent behavior, is glaringly absent. We might have used our voyeurism of Kanye as impetus for productive conversation about mental health, instead of finding he’s eccentric or he’s a genius to be sufficient explanations. That we’ve done no such thing, or no such noticeable thing, is a discouraging failure.
All this being said, the complex and contentious art versus artist question remains worth interrogating. At what point, if any, does eccentricity become abuse? If art warrants or is deemed to warrant the creation of bold, public-facing controversy, can that controversy thus be excused? What is to be made of the personal agency of those who exist adjacent to artists—family and friends and lovers who are often unavoidably reflected in the art? And, in the digital age especially, how do we discern when a public figure is really done performing, if that delineation exists at all?
The easiest answer to all of these questions is that there is no universal answer, that they vary case-by-case with regard both to the artist and to the consumer being asked. This is also probably the truest answer. But I should attempt to develop some rubric all the same.
The instances in which it is easiest to proclaim that immorality cannot be excused or ignored for the sake of art are those in which the art itself reflects the immorality. For the sake of subcategorization, I will acknowledge but not apply the argument that an artist (and by extension their behaviors—moral, immoral) is always reflected in their work. Instead, I’ll offer the abstract (though hopefully not unhelpful) criterion that the immorality be reflected to such an extent that it sullies one’s consumption of the art.
Take, for example, Pablo Picasso. When he was forty-five, he began a relationship with French model Marie-Thérèse Walter. Walter was seventeen, Picasso was married—and decidedly deterred by neither of those facts. Picasso would ultimately have a daughter with Walter, and then leave her for another mistress. For the time the two were together, though, she was his muse, the subject of over a dozen portraits—including both Girl before a Mirror and Le Rêve, which rank among Picasso’s most famous. The latter, which sold in 2013 for $155 million, depicts Walter blissfully reclined in an armchair, one breast exposed, an erect penis painted on the left half of her face. Though at first glance innocuous (even the penis is rather hidden), Le Rêve is immersed in menace for anyone who recognizes its subject as the lover nearly three decades Picasso’s junior. The failings of the artist are reproduced in his art, such that the two become inextricably linked.
A more recent example is singer and serial abuser R. Kelly: certain ex-fans attest to being unable to listen to his music in the aftermath of his widely publicized conviction for sex trafficking charges last year. Indeed, a plethora of Kelly’s lyrics are viscerally repulsive against the backdrop of his abuses—“Lock your body up and throw away the key,” he sings in one song; “Fruit platter from a young maid every hour” in another. One might also enter into this category someone like H.P. Lovecraft, who made human-alien procreation a recurring conflict in his science fiction œuvre. Such a trope loses all innocence when paired with Lovecraft’s personal views on miscegenation and racial integration: he believed it necessary to “prevent admixture as completely and determinedly as it can be prevented, through the establishment of a colour line and the rigid forcing of all mixed offspring below that line.” The grotesque and inscrutable creatures of his fictions, brimming with lust for humans, become as such disconcerting allegories.
When an artist’s individual ills are absent from or invisible in their art, though, making a moral judgment call is more difficult. It is this category into which most controversial or complicated art falls: one of immoral process, though perhaps not immoral product. Consider, for instance, Alfred Hitchcock, or, more recently, Harvey Weinstein. Both were titans of the film industry, their careers separated by six decades, and both—Weinstein in the wake of #MeToo, Hitchcock posthumously—have come to be known as characteristically abusive: sexually, emotionally, verbally. Nevertheless, these abuses are not necessarily reflected in a given film that Hitchcock directed or that Weinstein produced. A little willful oblivion, and the film might disconnect itself from Hitchcock or Weinstein’s name entirely. When, similarly, comedian Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assaults spanning five decades, hordes of American millennials and Gen X-ers were forced to ask themselves whether they should still find comfort in The Cosby Show and all it might have represented in their upbringing.
While the question of whether to excuse immorality in these cases still has an easy answer (no), the ethics of ignoring immorality are less clear. Should every half-hour spent watching an episode of The Cosby Show be supplemented by recognition of the atrocities committed by the man behind Cliff Huxtable? Or, to circle back to Kanye (and prove myself a hypocrite once more): does putting The College Dropout on shuffle necessitate time spent in acknowledgement of how West has recently made a public mockery of his ex-wife and children? If so, what does this recognition even look like? And is it productive? What can be discerned is that our visceral discomfort as consumers is often subtler in these cases, where at least a creator’s wrongs don’t stare us squarely in the face by way of their creations—but this doesn’t render our consumption devoid of moral uncertainties.
The third and final subcategory of complicated art that I will suggest is that of art which could be considered immoral on a theoretical level but which, by its reoccurrence and subsequent normalization, can’t reasonably be considered immoral in practice. Here, I’m thinking of the garden-variety love song or memoir—art that necessarily implicates other people, often without their permission, but which does so in an unboisterous and relatively faithful manner. In other words, it’s easy to joke that men shouldn’t date Taylor Swift because she’ll write a song about them, but one would struggle to seriously argue that “All Too Well” represents unethical artistry. There are, of course, exceptions, and sociocultural shifts dictate how we define those exceptions (Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, about her relationship with J.D. Salinger, was crucified upon its 1998 publication but would have been a triumph in the era of #MeToo), but for the most part the art in this category is the least abrasive, raises the fewest red flags about the morality of creative consumption.
I don’t think that these three categories are unhelpful or even necessarily inaccurate, but I do think that they are an oversimplification. I return to the notion that “it depends,” while entirely vague, is also entirely true. And I’ll add that the “immoralities” I’ve covered in this essay vary greatly in their severity and scope—I wouldn’t dare compare Kanye to Weinstein, and I don’t think anyone should.
I’m reminded by all this of something the poet Elizabeth Bishop once wrote to her friend and fellow poet Robert Lowell, and which I think sums up much of what I’m trying to say. In 1972, after divorcing his wife Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell sent Bishop a draft of his poetry collection The Dolphin, for which he’d quoted, paraphrased, and misconstrued a great deal of Hardwick’s letters and dialogue. (The Dolphin, needless to say, belongs in the category of immoral product.) Bishop, rightfully perturbed, discouraged Lowell against the book’s publication, writing in her response the now-famous line: “Art just isn’t worth that much.” Lowell published the book anyway, and for it won his second Pulitzer Prize.
Bishop’s sentiment, while insufficient for convincing her friend, is nevertheless a roadmap. Creating and consuming art are often endeavors of sacrifice, and what one is willing to sacrifice, as creator or consumer, is a question only that person can answer. We must each decide exactly what art is worth to us; we must each define our “that much.” Necessarily, this value fluctuates, and will likely at points contradict itself, but to be entirely incognizant of it is to assert that art is made and consumed in a vacuum—and it’s not.
I’m tired of talking about Kanye. But he’s an undeniably influential social figure with a dazzling arsenal of talents; he’s a frustrating, flawed, and self-centered man at the very same time. He ought to prompt us to ask for whom and with what we’ve built our cultural pedestals, and for just how long we’re willing to keep them up.