Art in the Age of “Cancel” Culture

Courtesy of W Magazine

Up-and-coming R&B artist Sabrina Claudio, who is Cuban and Puerto Rican, was recently put on blast when her old tweets resurfaced, which featured the N-word and disparaging comments toward Black women. Many fans took to social media declaring Claudio “cancelled” and screenshot themselves deleting her music from their phones. Since she hasn’t collaborated with Black female artists (although she’s worked with Black male artists) it seemed evident to many that she hadn’t grown much from her Twitter ranting days.

Cancelling culture is very much a part of 21st Century life in the age of social media, staying “woke” and social efforts like the MeToo movement. Cancelling someone is built on erasure, in an attempt to punish the accused or refrain from glorifying the so-called “bad guy.” We instantly withdraw support, typically without a second thought. But is it really that simple?

We say the artist is his/her art, but is that true? If we discover Bill Cosby is a bad man, does this mean The Cosby Show is bad also? If we say the show is good despite his actions, does that mean we are not our art? Do the lyrics of Never Let Me Down (“Racism’s still alive, they just be concealin’ it”) mean less because Kanye West thinks slavery sounds like a choice? Do we no longer “Believe We Can Fly” because R. Kelly is keeping young women locked in his mansion?

I write this not to perplex you, but to challenge what it really means to consume art in this age of accountability, and to question how much we are idolizing the artist at the ultimate expense of the art. The art world is no stranger to guilty figures who gave us things we marvel over with wonder. Can there be a part of us that produces something good in the midst of all the bad we have done?

Roxanne Gay recently penned an essay for Marie Claire titled “Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?” In it, Gay concludes that we should not overlook an artist’s sins in the name of creative genius when there are respectable creative geniuses everywhere. She points out in the recent case of Cosby’s guilty verdict that while his shows had great influence on her childhood, “we can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius.” Her answer to the article’s titular question is No.

I’ll be honest: I disagree. Now I’m not advocating that we worship or celebrate a person who has committed horrible acts. While none of us would dare praise Cosby for his serial adultery and sexual misconduct with women, does this change the fact that The Cosby Show functioned as a groundbreaking emblem of the Black family? The TV network Up felt it was possible to separate art from artist when they made the decision to re-air 7th Heaven following Stephen Collins’ child molestation scandal. They polled and listened to viewers who felt the family show was still worth its positive lessons apart from Collins’ personal crimes. Yes, Collins is white, but it’s an example worth noting.

If Kendrick Lamar sexually harassed an assistant four years ago, or beat up someone outside of his home, would it no longer matter that Damn achieved the impossible by earning the Pulitzer Prize? If Lin-Manuel Miranda committed a crime that we just found out about, you can’t tell me it would undo the immense impact Hamilton has on our society.

I personally wouldn’t keep supporting anyone with my dollar or time if they continued to do something reprehensible (hence why I don’t buy R. Kelly tickets, for example). But do we erase their past work as if it never existed, as if it has no ability to achieve positive impact? Some artists tie their brands and work into their identity, while others portray a very different persona in their work than who they really are. This plays a tremendous factor into how far from grace an individual will fall when we learn of their past offenses. So, this brings me to the biggest question we face:

Is it possible to consume art within the context that the artist behind it should not to be idolized? Does consumption automatically equal praise? How can we revere the art by itself?

Abiola Oke noted this well in his review of Donald Glover’s This Is America video by writing that “all creatives are fallible and the imperfect nature of our humanity leads to eventual disappointment. Perhaps we must begin to label the works genius rather than the creators of them, for the works live infinitely in definitive form. This way we/society never have to retract our adulation.”

This is difficult for some fans: face and voice are so intertwined in the work we produce today, that we easily believe everyone is their work. But they are not. And great art is not synonymous with great morality. Artists are not exempt from ethical corruption, regardless of what beauty they conceive into the world. To “cancel” their societal contributions in the wake of these discoveries does…what exactly? It flattens the complexity of the human spirit into a black and white picture of good versus evil. People are hardly that simple.

Art is creation. It is the rare time we can see ourselves made in the image of the true Creator: producing something good instead of destroying everything in sight. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to fall at the feet of anyone who originates something beautiful and powerful. Maybe that’s why we’re so quick to cancel them when they fall short, to spare ourselves the pain. But creatives aren’t God. They are people. Sometimes they give us a feeling, a sound, an image, at the perfect time.

Frequently, the art we create, the love we inspire, may be the one good thing we’ve ever done, the one indicator that all hope is not lost. Let the art guide you to the light and not the darkness. Let future generations know that if the bad guys can contribute something good, think about how much more the good guys can do for the world. Don’t leave us with just the darkness. Put the madness in its place, and let the good things continue to teach us to be good.

Writer | Multimedia Artist

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