Art or the Artist?

Is it the art or the artist that is more important? Is it the message or the messenger? The belief or the believer? I ask this as we sort through this time where many, particularly more in the college realm and social media sphere, are participating in one form or another in this idea of ‘cancel culture’. In a manner of speaking, it is the behavior of actively seeking the messenger and shooting them.

For those who’ve not been listening to podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience, Making Sense with Sam Harris, or following figures like Jordan B Peterson, Eric and Bret Weinstein, and others (sounds a lot like the former infamous IDW group, right?), or listening to Fox News for that matter, Cancel Culture is the active pursuit of blocking as many aspects of one’s livelihood based on some unacceptable idea or statement said person had expressed either past or present. It means pressure to remove a person from employment, social ostracizing, removal from social media platforms, etc. If it’s a historical figure, it means destroying monuments, historical documents, and in some more extreme cases, attempting to erase all historical evidence to their existence.

The call for canceling often centers on a single item, such as the fact that many of the founding fathers of the United States were slave holders. Or its a single tweet, or a phrase that may or may not be out of context.

The urge, as in the case of historical figures, is to malign individuals based on the values of today vs the values of the past. Would any of the founding fathers be slaveholders were they to be alive today? Or is it that they were slave holders as that was an acceptable business model in the past? How will the future judge us against the new form of slavery through debt? Or that prisoners are used as a form of slave labor, each which we excuse with some form of dismissive “it was their choices” that led them into debt or to prison? Or that we imprison, fine, and censure people for getting high safely in their own home? Or factory farming? Or that we fight with people and kill over ideas…

That last paragraph is only an illustration of a singular point: we must focus on what we are doing presently, what we do today. How far should we look back? 1,000 years? 100? 5? A month? We should not judge the past other than to learn from it.

While many who read this might believe that I am single-mindedly focused on this from a right-leaning perspective, this same behavior is done on the right, only without using the fancy coined terminology. It’s only that the right have played themselves the victim that the term “cancel culture” has even been coined.

Destroying one’s livelihood is an overt behavior based on the same mechanisms that drive bigotry and racism. It’s judgment of an individual’s virtue based on a trivial characteristic that someone has deemed most important. Racism as we understand can be attributed as people decided that the color of one’s skin is the determining factor of value of an individual, forgoing things such as honesty and work ethic… no, racists would be inclined to believe that skin color indicates otherwise. This country has a history (as do many, if not all, nations in this world) of cancel culture… based on skin color.

About the only redeeming characteristic of cancel culture as it stands today is that it appears in many respects to focus less on physical characteristics and more on actions or words… or so we are led to believe. Read that last statement at your own peril.

Whether it is the past or modernity, cancel culture is not new. Rather it is a new coinage of an old practice.

So let’s get back to the idea of the art and the artist, since I’ve expounded long enough. Cancel culture is in part a desire to (metaphorically speaking) killing the artist because we don’t like the art. Or even worse, killing the artist and burning their entire portfolio because we don’t like a single piece of their art. It seems that we are rigid in how we are able to separate art and look at individual artistic pieces from the person that created it. We do this forgetting that for the artist, the art represents a moment, a singularity within the whole scope of their lives. Even this essay, over 700 words as of this statement, is a mere fraction of the words I’ve written this month (a mere 1.7% actually), last year, the last several years, my entire life. There is no guarantee that I will look back at this essay with pride. In probability, unless in some freakish occurrence this goes viral, this essay will vanish into the stacks of blog entries I’ve been making and will make over my coming years. Should I be judged on the value of a single essay? How about a phrase within said essay?

People are often tempted to look upon the artist as the bearer of the message they interpret the art with. We, as artists, might have an intention behind the words we write or the paint we apply, but once we leave it for others to interpret, that meaning no longer wholly applies to us. And though it only represents the fraction of the whole of our works, and however one interprets it, the desire is to look upon us as a bearer of truth or lies and that work represents to others of the positioning we stand. And while the art, the message, the belief may indeed be presented strictly because of the position we stands, is it sufficient to then condemn us? Can one damn us, the artist, on how our work is interpreted by others?

Here’s another quandary: can we judge art based on the external behavior of the artist? Or a political party they belong? Or what they say outside of their art? Think of Roman Polanski, the Polish film director. His accolades in film are extensive, including a film I myself think is a masterpiece: “Rosemary’s Baby”. Yet, he was convicted of the rape of a 13-year old girl and remains a fugitive of the US. Should we completely eliminate the body of his work, or dismiss it outright because of the rape? Some say ‘yes’. But again, it is akin to shooting the messenger. Yes, he should have been brought to justice for his crime, but destroy the art? It’s an extreme case, but in the extremes we can truly test the mettle of the ideas we espouse. In this case, if we expunge all of the art Roman created based on his convicted behaviors, we’d be robbed of the masterpieces he created, including the aforementioned examination on evil and motherhood. It is indeed a quandary.

We look at these small pieces of people, of artists, of messengers, of believers, and try to extrapolate the whole of their person, their art, their message, their beliefs, based on a singular piece of the whole. We must learn to begin to separate these pieces from the whole. Unless we can start, portions of society will only grow this behavior until we see in everyone nothing but the small bit of art that warrants destroying the artist for. Flaws are a natural part of humanity, of being human. Each of us has within us a piece of art that is ugly to someone, that if pushed to the extreme, would sentence us to death in their eyes. Can we allow that? Can we allow the artist to be killed, or should we simply learn to challenge the art?

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