Kanye and the Question: Can You Separate Art from the Artist?

So the dilema of What to Do with Kanye West is the quintessence of the issue of whether the artist can be separated from their art. In the essay “The Intentional Fallacy,” literary theorists Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that a poem’s meaning is completely detached from its writer – the context and intended purpose or meaning you can gather from things that they do and say don’t matter – and once it is “born” it belongs entirely to the audience.

That could definitely be applied to music, where songs take on a meaning based on where and when you hear them, and how they relate to your feelings, more than perhaps the original intention of the song.

I like the song “Gold Digger” probably because it reminds me of high school and not likely because it’s also a commentary on economics. But knowing what I know about the person who Kanye West is now, as opposed to the Kanye West who made songs like “All Falls Down” and said on live TV that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, can I still enjoy the music the same?

A screen grab of Mike Myers and Kanye West during a Hurricane Katrina benefit.

Because we have access to artists more than ever before, their private lives are public and also in a sense more performative because those likes and follows on social media can lead to revenue. Does the original theory about the degree of removal from art still stand then in this world?

Can I separate the Kanye who made “Black Skinhead” from today’s one who’s “quitting politics” after saying things like slavery was a choice and perpetuating harmful stereotypes to a president and his base who use those stereotypes to justify racist laws and thinking?

To me, the question of whether it is the place of an artist to speak out about politics is a non-argument, because, yes, of course it is. Politics has always had a place in modern music, because art is a reflection of life.

Mural of Kanye West by @LUSHSUX

The person creating it creates from the context of their experience as a man/woman/black/white/queer/cis person and the expectation is that their art comes from an authentic place. But at the same time, these people have a responsibility to the people who look up to them (it’s part of the job description whether you want it or not), and a famous person spreading misinformation or aligning with dangerous ideologies can have extremely real consequences.

Most importantly, if we excuse the misdeeds of the rich and powerful, we’re making it hard for the not-so-privileged to retain their rights and dignity.   

The things Kanye West had been saying were especially harmful because of who he used to be, and therefore what his music meant to a lot of his fans. That’s why it’s particularly tough to answer how much you can really separate the artist from their art. Is the work from old Kanye tainted and stained the red of a MAGA hat now?

I guess the thing is that if you’re consuming pop culture, you can’t escape the fact that you’re going to be enjoying some good things done by some messed up people. One of the most vivid things I’ve read is a passage written by James Brown’s daughter describing how she watched as a young child her father beat her mother on their front lawn. John Lennon was abusive to his first wife too. Countless others are outing themselves or being outed for various misdeeds from the minor to the #metoo related.

James Brown and his daughter Yamma Brown, from the cover of her book Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me. 

There are some that for me are unquestionably cancelled. R Kelly is the other poster child for the artist and their art argument, and most people find it easy to answer that in this case you can’t separate the two.

Apart from the fact that he literally made a 19-minute song about the accusations of his abusing underage women and being the leader of what is essentially a sex cult, he had also been making songs that were so explicit that you can’t listen to them without feeling gross.

It’s why there was a massive call for someone to remake  “Ignition(Remix)” because sane people literally can’t listen to R Kelly anymore knowing what we know about the person behind the music (and the problem is, it’s such a good song).

Mainly, it’s a point about the victims, and that if men like R Kelly can’t get convicted for crimes for which there is so much evidence, what hope do black women anywhere, who are so low on the totem pole of justice, have against their abusers?

It’s why I can’t listen to Chris Brown either after I’d read the police reports of what he did to Rihanna and then read the tweets of young women who say he could beat them anytime. It’s why I’m sad that XXXtentacion has such a following.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 10.29.50 AM

The fact that artists are problematic isn’t new. It’s just that now since we know better we’re obligated to do better. And I hold people who are making music now, in my time, to a higher standard.

But those are lines that I as an individual and music listener have decided to draw. Ultimately, it might not necessarily be about whether you can really separate the artist from their art, but what you choose to endorse through listening and spending your money and internet hours.

You’re the one who has to decide how much of the past has been tainted by what has been revealed in the present (and sometimes face the consequences as you declare that to your own public).

For me, and for now, Kanye is unlistenable because this has been a little more dangerous and painful than just the rant of a narcissist. But even that is a hard thing to say because sometimes being a music lover is too much damn work.  


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