17. March 2021 By Walter Price 0

OPINION: Can you separate art from the artist?

Hardy H. Hum / AWSDOTR are available on Spotify, Apple Music.

photo by Johan Gröndahl

by Hardy H. Hum

Phil Spector’s murder and history of criminal violence, Jon Schaffer’s antidemocratic activism and
partaking in storming of Capitoleum, Morrissey’s anti-semitic rants, Varg Vikernes’ public
embracement of Nazi-ideology, Peter Handke’s denial of war crimes and genocide in Bosnia… The list
of artists with questionable, or even downright horrible, moral standards and ethical outlooks can be
made long. So, what do we think about that? And how do we relate to that? Well, the views are
heavily polarized with one side claiming you must separate art from the artist and the other side
claiming the artists should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. Well, I say – it’s complicated! I
do not think you can separate art from the artist. But I do not think that the norm should be a
flawless artist either – the one who has never had a bad thought or done anything wrong. Because
that really leaves us with nothing but dull and boring art, a kind of a sermonizer for the masses. And
who would want that?! That being said, I don’t believe that artists nor their art should get a free pass
from being judged with regards to their moral stands and the impact that has on us as art-consumers
and on society in general. Let me break this down for you!

In an interview with The Daily Beast magazine a punkrocker, poet, and street philosopher Henry
Rollins discarded the idea that you can separate art from the artist: “I think artists should be held to a
very high standard…”, Rollins said, “… because if you’re going to make a record that I let into my
heart, then hopefully you’re not a homophobe or a racist, because that, to me, is a deal-breaker.” So
that does not fly with Mr. Rollins. It does not fly with me either! Albeit, I’d like to push it a step
further by saying that I don’t think it’s a matter of whether you are willing/able to pull it off or not. I
think it cannot be done, period! Closest you can come is convincing yourself to believe that, for
instance, you have just successfully enjoyed art of a racist without succumbing to its sense woven

Because, see, the art you have just indulged in is still forged in racist outlooks and sentiments oozing
with nauseating and repulsive stench of racist ideology. Like swimming in the lake of thick racist goo.
And, provided it is art we are talking about here, there is no escaping from the effects that goo has
on you. Goo sticks like glue and creeps deep under your skin, whether you want (to admit) it or not.
Honestly, art in and for itself is nothing. Art is always a part of the same web of meanings it constantly
challenges. It is hinged in our discourses on moral and justice and in artists’ personal outlook which
means it cannot be judged outside this context. Coz only thing you can judge then is the technical
execution of an artform… and that is like the sound of one hand clapping. Art is not engineering. It is
not economics. You can judge how a rocket tears up the stratosphere in this and that mile per hour
without having to relate to the social implications of its power. You can judge that the perfect blend
of metals can give a certain quality to the resulting product without having to relate to the social
implications of it. You can judge that 1 kilogram of carrots weighs the same as 1 kilogram of spinach –
but the difference in volume is significant. You can measure the technical qualities of nearly anything
under the sun – but art. Coz art is not spinach or carrots nor a technology.

For instance, the choice made by the Swedish Academy – to embrace the work of a genocide denier
and revisionist of the history Peter Handke and award him with Nobel prize in literature – is not just
an innocent mistake; it reveals a deeper structural problem of ethnocentric cultural elitism that i
completely insensitive to the bloodred carpets of corpses their fine art has walked on to get where it
is today. (Shame on you Swedish Academy, Alfred Nobel would be deeply ashamed of your choice here!)

I do not believe in fairytales. I am not delusional. There are no saints! But I still believe there is an
essential difference between Jerry Lee Lewis’ insane lack of judgment when marrying Myra Gale
Brown – his 13-year-old cousin – and Burzum’s creator Varg Vikernes’ open embracement of Naziideology and his coward denial that his Nazi-outlook would have any impact on his art – which any
closer look into his lyrics would prove wrong. Take, for instance, the lyrics for a song “War” from his
debut self-titled album from 1981:

I Lie Wounded on Wintery Ground
With Hundred of Corpses around
Many Wounded Crawl Helplessly around
On the Blood Red Snowy Ground
Cries of the (ha, ha) Suffering Sound
Cries for Help to All Their Dead Moms
Many Hours of Music
Many Drops of Blood
Many Shiverings and Now I Am Dead
And Still We Must Never Give up

Now, provided Vikernes’ political point of view is not a secret and that he openly expresses his
embracement of Nazi-ideology – I cannot bring myself to interpret these lines without evoking the
images of the holocaust, mocking the victims and their suffering, and glorifying the brutalities of war. In
his most recent creations perhaps Vikernes has developed a bit less straight-forward lyrical style:

The Reckoning Of Man

I remember the red runes on the rock,
the spell of seeing being sung,
and the bold opening up of the beautiful burrow.
I remember the coming of man reborn,
the birth of Baldur the bright,
the return of a world that was woefully lost

Again, provided I know about Vikernes’ political point of view, all I see here is a national-romantic
nostalgia – with Old Norse godly figures at the very center of it – and his longing for the World lost
due to the current state of events – not much unlike the rhetoric’s that right extremist groups and
political organizations in Sweden and large parts of the Euro-American World have been expressing
themselves ever since the end of the Second World War and even more so since Samuel P.
Huntington’s groundless ethnocentric political prophecy in “Clash of Civilisations”.

Lewis did not question his morals because no one else did. Those were the morals of his time and he
was a product of his times. I am neither relativizing nor legitimizing here, just providing the context
necessary for the phenomenon to be understood properly. Vikernes, on the other hand, defends his
Nazi-outlook despite everybody questioning it. That is not a misstep – it is a stand. A conscious,
deliberate direction. Configuration of an identity that aims for making difference in the world, to cast
his lot for one way of life and not the other. That is different!

A similar difference is to be found between, say, Bob Marley’s infidelity towards his wife Rita and Peter
Handke’s denial of genocide in Bosnia. Marley was malevolent towards his wife. Handke is a guardian
of evil.

Art is not about being beautiful, pleasing and comforting. Red rose gardens, mountain rivers,
northern forests, sandy beaches, and such do that job much, much better. Art is a primal form of
communication and as such it always creates a bond between the artist and the art-consumer. We
cannot go around pretending that is not the case. Yes, art can be beautiful, but it can also be
intriguing, provoking, enigmatic, puzzling, and appalling. So, no! I do not engage with a painting
because it is pretty or beautiful but rather because it intrigues me, tugs me, speaks to me – it
communicates its spell and casts its hooks into my deeply felt sensibilities, my pre-semantic self,
evoking my sentiments and my faculties on different levels of abstraction. So, if I should find out that
a painting was done by a war criminal – of course it would affect my interpretation of it! All things
that were being communicated to me through that painting would, in an instant, fall to the ground
like a house of cards and new, more contextualized, interpretations would take their place, building
up a new set of understandings. A new narrative. How could it ever be any other way?

A couple of years ago, at a premiere vernissage by Swedish painter and sculptor Lillevi Hultman, I
asked her about one particular painting, whether it was a self-portrait. The painting depicted a
woman entangled in threads of a sewing machine, both mastering it and being mastered by it… like a
puppet. Threads and sewing was Hultman’s predominant artistic technique at the time so I thought
this was how she envisioned herself as she engages with her art. So, upon hearing my question she
turned around, looked me in the eyes, and responded: “EVERYTHING… is a self-portrait!”. What a
lesson for me, ha!? And then, if that is true, if all art is a self-portrait in a sense that it carries
substantial elements of artist’s conscious, subconscious, and diverse layers of his/her deeply felt
sensibilities… then the answer to a question I posed in the title of this article is: “No, art cannot be
separated from the artist!

Ultimately, it is not about being exceptional or perfect or faultless as an artist and a human being.
Faultless people bother me because I do not believe they can exist. It is about clinging on to the most
fundamental elements of our human selves. Not allowing for them to perish in our quest for
liberation from whatever social and cultural norms and values. And that might require some clear
and precise thinking.

South African-Duch painter Marlene Dumas painted a self-portrait based on a photograph of herself,
calmly looking over her shoulder in bright flashy lights and colors that just collide heavily with the
painting’s title Evil is banal. The painting was subsequently analyzed and debated by many with
regards to it being a comment on the Apartheid regime and echoing Hanna Arendt’s descriptions of the Nazi
bureaucratic system and how the most frightening quality of that system at that time was how
normalized and widely accepted it was in daily life. Dumas commented on her self-portrait with
these words: “I have not come to propagate freedom. I have come to show the disease symptoms of
my time. I am a good example of everything that is wrong with my time.”

We must not look at the artist as a self-creating individual. This goes as much for Phil Spector as for
any other artist. Instead, the artist emerges through continuous co-constitutive relationships with
the society represented by an audience. Being an artist is a privilege that comes with a responsibility
How an artist sees his/her being in the World and how he/she decides to deal with the World and
with other people will inescapably stain his/her art. Through that art, the artist touches people and
alters the world. To claim that you must separate the art from the artist is no more than a
momentous reduction of complex subject matters and, perhaps, a lazy effort to justify one’s
commitment to certain songs, paintings, novels, and other art. I am not saying we should boycott all
art whose creators fail to live up the certain moral standards. But we must at least allow ourselves to
be aware of these elements and of the influence they have on us.

Love! /Hardy

Hardy Hum: Artist, songwriter, anthropologist, development manager, TEDx-speaker, researcher, and culture

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