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Art Inquisition: Separation of Art and Artist

TW: sexual assault. (This is the part where I add some words to make sure the really awful ones don’t show up in the post preview. Here, watch this awesome non-sequitur video of Neil deGrasse Tyson dancing first. Go grab a snack or a comfortable pillow to punch.)

A few weeks ago, street artist David Choe (who I’d never heard of until this incident) may or may not have admitted on his podcast to sexually assaulting a massage therapist. Depends on whether you think he was telling a true story, or if it’s just his “version of reality, it’s art that sometimes offends people” (as he later claimed).

 “I was like, “spit on it.” And she’s like “Uh, no, I don’t wanna do that.” And I was like “No, spit on my dick.” And she was like “No… this is crazy.” You know? And it’s like, she’s definitely like not into it, but she’s not stopping it, either.
… I take the back of her head, and I push it down on my dick, and she doesn’t do it. And I go “Open your mouth, open your mouth,” and she does it and then I start facef**king her.”

So either the story is made up and he lied about it being true, or the story is true and he’s lying about it being made up. Huh.

Upon reading about this (I couldn’t bring myself to listen to the audio), I developed an almost overwhelming rage combined with the desire to do something ridiculous like petition the White House to have Choe’s art removed. I’m usually pretty strongly in favor of not judging art based on the actions of its creator, though! So what gives?

I never understood the middle-school need to know your favorite lead singer’s middle name and favorite color. I don’t really care about the myriad addictions of an author unless it impacts my understanding of their writing. I acknowledge that I enjoy some pretty problematic things. I don’t want to know my heroes. So why did this get my ire up so badly?

So I thought I might consider other asshole artists. Because whoa nelly, there are plenty.

Muralist Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo) was, without question, a notorious womanizer with a violent temper. The degree to which you agree may depend on your views of fathering children outside one’s marriage, slicing your lover’s neck, and sleeping with your wife’s sister.

“If I ever loved a woman, the more I loved her, the more I wanted to hurt her,” Rivera once said. “Frida was only the most obvious victim of this disgusting trait.”

When I learned of his personal history, it had almost no impact on my view of his work, and I still worry that his murals at the Detroit Institute of Art will be negatively affected by the state of the city’s finances.

Roman Polanski continued to work successfully despite pleading guilty to the charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. In 1977. Then fleeing the country. I can’t even read about it without alternately freaking out and being filled with rage at his defenders, but I don’t do anything about it but avoid the subject. Maybe I’m just not that into film.

Odd Future is apparently so awful that they were denied entry to New Zealand for a scheduled performance at the Rapture festival in February. I’d never even heard too much about them, and yeah, Odd Future’s words do squick me out more than a little. But then, so does Eminem, and I’m incredibly conflicted about that guy.

And I think this is where things start diverting off into the art-becoming-life issue that may be the real question about Choe’s… whatever you want to call what he did. Is he awful, or is he telling awful stories? I mean, I don’t think Quentin Tarantino is off rampaging and murdering in the bloodiest ways possible in real life. I don’t think Vince Gilligan actually cooks meth. I don’t think Bram Stoker sucked blood.

And if we’re going to judge the work of artists based on their personal lives, it doesn’t end. Woody Allen. Chris Brown. R. Kelly. Michael Jackson. And that’s just a few, and only on the topic of questionable sexual relations. Hell, Matthew Broderick killed a woman and her daughter in a 1987 car accident and walked away with a $175 fine. People can be AWFUL, in bajillions of horrible ways that we can judge them for.

When I started looking up somewhat-comparative awful behavior for this post, I found a few somewhat thoughtful posts here and here and here. But I gotta admit that I kinda stopped looking at the internet for a while after Odd Future.

So what’s the difference? Why do I care differently about one or the other? Art cannot be created in a vacuum, or we wouldn’t give a crap. So why do we feel the need for artists whose work we like to also be like us?

What do you think? When can you separate the artist from their art, and when do an artist’s actions have actual impact on their work? Why are some people simply made more famous by their disturbing behavior? Where is the line between awful-equals-fame-without-repercussions and awful-equals-jail-time? Is it somehow “worse” when an artist is a contemporary, or is it simply that something could “be done” about a modern asshole whereas historical douchebaggery is literally in the past? Is it just that there’s only so much we can be outraged about before we shut down entirely and watch the world burn? Do we just teach ourselves to look at the bits we like and turn a blind eye to the horrible parts? And when does the horrible go from ignorable to outrage-inducing? How do we know when they mean it, and how do we tell when they’re just kidding or trying to turn our attention to an uncomfortable topic? And have the cops paid a visit to David Choe yet?

The Art Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. It appears on random days at 3pm ET…because NOBODY EXPECTS THE ARTIST INQUISITION!
Make with the comments!

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Beth Voigt

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and public transit and is still on her first smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around.


  1. May 6, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    There is, like, a ton to unpack, and I’m at work right now, so I might have to follow up later, but as far as I’m concerned, that shit bothers me. I found out about Polanski after I’d already seen Chinatown, and I’ve refused to watch another Polanski movie since. I get mad when actors I like work for him. They are supporting him WHILE HE IS ACTIVELY AVOIDING the repercussions of his rape. I don’t want to give that bastard a dime. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter how good the art is if you’re supporting human garbage.

    Many people (myself included) stopped following Penny Arcade at some point either after the shitty defense of the rape joke, after the transphobia, after apparently supporting rape apologists at PAX (although later clarified), or who knows how many other things. I do think Krahulik in particular was ignorant and over reactive, and he admitted as much. He’ s apologized and said he’s going to shut up and try to be better, but I personally don’t want to slog through that while he figures it out. Which is fine. I’ve been working hard at being a less shitty human being for a long time, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to have been there for all my fuck ups. Krahulik’s just happen to be on display to everyone.

    As for historical bastards, it’s actually easier. It’s less “a product of their time” defense and more of a public domain deal for me. I can enjoy the art and still be critical of the artist largely because most of their impact is gone. When I enjoy art that is problematic (say, Dumas, for instance), I can talk about what elements I enjoy and what I take issue with without funding bigotry or assault. And the people that see me enjoying Three Musketeers, for instance, can understand what I like and also understand that I don’t condone the misogyny or classicism depicted.

    tldr: if there’s shit you don’t like about an artist or their work, talk about it. If it’s shit you don’t want to support, don’t. That line gets drawn differently for everyone.

  2. May 7, 2014 at 1:26 am

    Bringing it into the sphere of “not wanting to financially support assholes” certainly does help one draw a line in the sand! Plus it gives a sensible rationale for why it doesn’t seem to matter as much once the person is dead.

    For me, at least, a lot also depends on how closely the person’s art is tied to the specifics of their unpleasantness. If J.S. Bach beat his wife, that would make me really sad, but I would likely still find myself able to forget that fact while listening to one of his violin concerti. It would be much harder to ignore the same thing in the lead singer of an overtly political punk band — my brain would be shouting WHERE DO YOU GET OFF TELLING ME WHAT’S IMPORTANT ASSHOLE.

    Also, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that it becomes just a bit more important to shun an artist if popular opinion still holds the artist in high regard. One is naturally inclined to be the change one wants to see in the world, in these sorts of situations.

  3. May 7, 2014 at 7:31 am

    I want to add for clarity that other kinds of support can be objectionable, too. For example, a recent American Dad episode reached its conclusion by having every female character extol how much they enjoyed being ogled by men. Like, that was the way the episode resolved. It’s okay, dudes, be a creepy fucker all you want, all women (secretly, and even if they say otherwise) love it. It was one of the grossest things I’ve seen on a scripted show in a long time. I don’t want to watch it any more, and I am pretty sure I don’t want to watch other Seth MacFarlane projects because of it. I had always pegged him as a Poe-dangerous satirist, but there was nothing satirical in that patriarchal bullshit.

    Even if I watch a show in a way that he can’t possibly make money from it, I’d still be tacitly endorsing him by consuming his work, particularly if I get involved in conversations about the show.

    MacFarlane is actually a good place to take this discussion, because I do want to support the brand Cosmos and support NDT. So, there’s a conflict that has to be resolved. Very few creative works are solo endeavors, so is it more worth it for me to watch Cosmos and support that team, or is it more worth it to remove myself from MacFarlane’s support network, financial or cultural or both?

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