The Philosophy of Separation: Why Art Owes You Nothing

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I’ve really been struggling with artists who are problematic. Sometimes I feel like I’m not allowed to like anything anymore because as soon as I mention, say, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and how it cured my depression, somebody has to pipe up to remind me that she was horrendously anti-Semitic.

Or, as soon as I mention, for example, Anna Laetitia Barbauld and how her poetry cured my depression, we have to talk about how she was not a great antislavery advocate.

Or, as soon as I mention, like, an obscure, exclusively YouTube-famous actor whose performance in a couple of musicals cured my depression, somebody has to bring up allegations of public drunkenness against them (which were proved false, but still, what a bummer).

And I hadn’t really had an answer when people brought up all those bad things until recently.

Because honestly, I think we can separate the art from the artist, to an extent. In terms of analysis, it’s important to keep in mind who the artist is, where they come from, and what their context is.

But in terms of appreciation, I think we’re allowed to like problematic things.

Unpopular opinion on this campus, I’m sure, and that’s okay. But let me explain!

Take for example the 2018 film Call Me By Your Name. A lot of people I know hated that movie for its portrayal of what they thought was pedophilia (but was in fact a consensual, if unhealthy, sexual relationship because Italy’s age of consent is 16).

Take for another example the book Beloved by Toni Morrison. This book portrays slavery, feticide, and demons. The first years in my course tutoring class are really nervous about starting it because the content is so intense, and they’re right to be nervous. But they are not right to expect the book to align with what they want it to be, the happy ending they expect, the conflict-free utopia of our dreams.

Because the fact is, and this will hurt: art doesn’t owe you a thing. Art doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect. Art can be really ugly and upsetting–– it can even be disappointing.

Kind of like Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Kind of like literally any music artist and their music, like, ever. Kind of like Robert Burns’s sexist portrayals of women in his otherwise extremely woo-worthy love poetry.

But artists, too, don’t owe you a thing; they create as they will, and it’s your job to interpret what they make as you will.

So please, let’s all stop acting like the whole world has to create art that accommodates our particular moral standards.

It’s not up to us; as my dear old dad says, “Life isn’t fair.”

And if art imitates life… well, there you go.

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