Each piece of music serves a different purpose. Depending on the scenario, a collection of different types of songs best suit the specific vibe the circumstance elicits. For example, if I was driving down a freeway at midnight with the windows rolled down, I would blast The Killers or Steve Lacy. If I was having trouble drifting to sleep, my first inclination would be to play Bon Iver or Mac DeMarco. But what if my playlists were filled with infamous artists? What if the musicians that headline these crucial events were murderers, rapists, racists, or homophobes—should we still allow their songs to circulate?
This age-old question is a matter of ethics and its connection to aesthetics, the opposing opinions represented by two separate principles: autonomism and ethicism. The former is the notion that moral content is irrelevant to the artwork’s value as art and should be judged from a purely objective standpoint. Autonomism remarks that art remains to be beautiful without knowledge of the artist’s actions. The latter idea states that moral content is relevant when the artwork solicits a response involving moral judgment. This is to say that ethics in regard to the artistic work as well as the artist comes into play when it affects others in a negative way. I believe that ethicism is a more valid argument. You can’t separate the art from the artist when the artist has done something wrong.
In its most obvious argument, supporting the piece indirectly supports the artist. When you stream a song on Spotify, every hit contributes to money earned that goes straight into the creator’s pocket. By liking a song, adding it to a playlist, or subscribing to an artist, you are allowing controversial artists to have a platform and support themselves. For example, Robin Thicke wrote a song titled “Blurred Lines,” a piece obviously detailing sexual assault and blurring the lines of consent. The popularity of mass audiences, however, diminished the true meaning behind his words and provided him an unjustified platform.
Moreover, in separating the art from the artist, you are allowing their actions to be a model for their followers to emulate. This phenomenon is magnified due to one small fact: a majority of popular, problematic artists’ fans are youth. Young individuals form attachments to and idolize their celebrities. When parents expose their children to artists such as Chris Brown, R. Kelly, Cavetown, Nicki Minaj and others who are known to be sexual assaulters, racist, anti-semitic, sexist, or homophobic, they are permitting youth to see these musicians as idols. Kids will, in turn, use them as role models to base their actions upon as they grow older. Essentially, endorsing these artists by heavily supporting their music permits the younger generation to follow in their footsteps and allow the cycle of infamy to continue.
While both these prior points are valid takes, a counter argument can be made in support of autonomism. Though it is important to remain scornful of artists who have committed terrible acts and even crimes, many of their artworks speak to listeners. When a song resonates with a person, it can become a safety net and source of serotonin, and withholding that can do more harm than good. In addition, it is difficult to draw boundaries when it comes to “canceling” an artist. Cancel culture today has grown to be so all-encompassing that all mistakes creators make are greeted with scorn and hate. So where do individuals stop when not supporting problematic musicians? What is even considered problematic?
I believe a line is drawn when an artist gains more bad publicity for their actions than good. There is often a justifiable reason for the widespread dislike of them and the negativity that surrounds their actions is not a quality I endorse.
The rapper Ye, formerly known as Kanye West,is an immediate example of a popular celebrity seen in a more negative light than positive. From anti-Semitic actions to homophobic statements to blatant disregard for human rights, this idolized rapper is finally facing serious backlash for his thoughtless speech.
Furthermore, it is important for me to note whether their actions are forgivable. If what they have done is truly irreversible and would never allow me to see them in the same light, I do not support them, plain and simple. In the instance of Ye, his ongoing actions are unforgivable due to their repetitive nature.
The question of whether to separate the art from the artist is one not easily answered. It is difficult to debate an issue so rooted in ethics, yet nearly impossible to draw restrictions within. Yet, no matter whether you believe in ethicism or autonomism, consider this article to be food for thought. Next time you shuffle play a random Spotify playlist, think about who is singing the words you are listening to.