Wow, this got long: Should we separate an artist from their art?

Recently, based on my tendency to indulge my nostalgia and listen to all the rock and emo music that got me through being an angsty teenager in 2007, YouTube threw up a song by Welsh rock band Lostprophets in my Recommended menu. Without thinking I clicked on the video – it wasn’t until the song was nearly halfway through that I realised I maybe shouldn’t be listening to it at all.

(For the uninitiated, the lead singer of Lostprophets, Ian Watkins, was in 2013 sentenced to 29 years’ imprisonment after being charged with a number of monstrous offences, most notably with conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a one-year-old.)

So this got me thinking – should we be separating artists from their art? Is it acceptable to overlook the criminal record of the man who sang one of my favourite songs for the sake of my sentimentality?

My gut instinct says no, of course not. Ultimately, art is an extension of the artist. It’s something they’ve created. In the case of Lostprophets, it doesn’t matter that we the audience don’t know Ian Watkins or any of his bandmates personally, or that our personal experience of their art is heavily influenced by our own memories, thoughts and emotions. Neither of these elements of a Lostprophets album changes the fact that its instrumentals, melodies, meanings and everything else were crafted, and belong to, a convicted paedophile.

Not only that, but to consume the art of any artist (in terms of paying to consume the art) is to show our support of them. That’s just the nature of consumerism – the same could be said for buying a chocolate bar. Whichever chocolate bar you choose, you’re choosing to support that particular brand. You wouldn’t buy something you didn’t like! Especially via monetised streaming services, such as YouTube and Spotify, by listening to a Lostprophets track you are inadvertantly supporting every member of that band, who will receive a payment – no matter how small – per stream or play of their work. There’s nothing wrong with this – the majority of us expect to be paid for the work we do – but when the craftsman has committed such serious offenses, to me it’s slightly uncomfortable to think we’re lining his pockets.

I know this isn’t the end of the discussion. I can certainly see the appeal of the response. For starters, Lostprophets as a band was not just Ian. Through his own charges, to which the rest of the band were allegedly oblivious, Ian Watkins has destroyed the reputation and livelihoods of five other musicians who did nothing wrong. Damning the other five band members for the sixth’s actions might be seen as unfair.

It could also be argued that you can’t switch off your feelings – if a song rouses certain memories or emotions within you simply by listening, you can’t exactly just switch that reaction off. To put it another way, if we’re expected to unlearn the emotions evoked by a piece of art, being expected to unlearn a smell should be no different. The majority of us know that stomach-flipping moment where you catch the smell of the perfume or aftershave worn by the person you like, or the warming, contented feeling that comes with smelling a roast dinner in the oven. I’m not sure I’ll ever be over the smell of bacon sizzling, or the harrowing first note of ‘Welcome To The Black Parade’ by My Chemical Romance. Both evoke an instant reflex. If we should be able to switch off from art – regardless of which of our five senses we receive the art through – why can’t the same be said of other human reactions?

(of course I know our conscience, and what is deemed as a socially acceptable conscience, plays a big part in the expectation to be able to switch off our emotions. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.)

This is a very poorly constructed argument, I know, and it only really scratches the surface of what I really want to get to the bottom of. I’ve still got so many questions. Why does Justin Bieber have so many devoted followers and worldwide #1 singles when he’s no stranger to antisocial behaviour and disrespectful to his fans? How did Trump become elected as POTUS, for God’s sake, with all the sexual assault allegations and public displays of racism to his name?

Should we separate the artist from their art, if necessary? If we do, does that say more about the artist, or the callibration of our own moral compass?

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