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Tuesday May 17th

Separating art from artist: UNC professor insights

Should we, as consumers of various art mediums, choose to separate the art that a person produces from their personal life outside of that medium? Is there a way to do so without compromising the work?

In light of recent sexual allegations surfacing in national arts and entertainment industries, UNC professors Gregory Flaxman, Jacqueline Lawton, Cary Levine and Emil Kang offered their personal insights into that choice. 

For the purposes of this discussion, “art” is defined as any medium created, produced by or enacted by an individual. Similarly, “artist” is any person who creates, produces, enacts or is involved in the development of the piece.

Prof. Gregory Flaxman

Flaxman, associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature and director of Global Cinema Studies, said historically, artwork has been considered separate from the creator.

“They tended to segregate the work from the author in order to think about the nature of the work and not to attribute things to the author — intentions, etc. — that couldn’t actually be sustained,” Flaxman said.   

Acknowledging the longstanding tradition of viewing pieces without the context of the artist, Flaxman said it's complicated to navigate between choosing to separate the work from the personal life of its producer and keeping the two entities conjoined. 

“I don’t know to what degree I endorse that tradition wholeheartedly," Flaxman said. "I think it is useful in some cases with respect to teaching, and I think it is useful for students. But then, when it comes to questions that are being raised today about whether it’s comedians, or filmmakers or what have you, I don’t know to what degree it is possible for audiences to separate the nature of the art from the artists, or if they should.” 

He continued his explanation by offering the perspective that choosing to view the art without consideration to its creator is a choice that each consumer must make.

“To be honest, I think in some cases, I am in no position to judge how people decide those things and I think those are really personal decisions,” Flaxman said.

Prof. Jacqueline Lawton

Lawton, assistant professor of Playwriting, Play Analysis, Theatre for Social Change and Dramaturgy, explained how society goes about the process of choosing between separating the art from the artist, or choosing not to instead.

“We express our morals and principles with our choices," Lawton said. "How we feel about certain behavior and what lines we draw in the sand determine what we choose to consume or not consume. Everyone is going to respond differently, and there is no single or wrong answer.”

Lawton continued her discussion of society’s conscious and unconscious decisions surrounding the choice.

“Psychologically, it's sometimes hard for people to disassociate themselves from a memory or feeling they had when they first experienced a work of art, watched a film/television show/play or met a prominent figure,” Lawton said. “This is even more compounded when the person in question is a friend, loved one or family member.”

Prof. Cary Levine

Levine, associate professor of Contemporary Art, discussed how artists who are prominent figures within our society affect public perceptions of their art and their personal life. 

“The focus on the celebrity culture is a mixed bag," Levine said. "It has, in fact, generated a lot of this kind of reflection on how we imagine what the public persona is versus the reality and how we now are to think about the art that they made. The work that they’ve done: Is it all bad now because we know that the person is bad?”

While Levine noted that it is a personal choice whether or not the artist is taken into consideration when consuming their art, he does warn of the negative consequences of art censorship.

“Policing works of art, even if it may seem logical in the short-term, is almost always bad in the long-term,” Levine said. “So, we want to think about how privilege, let’s say, or even abuse, has shaped the art, but not necessarily to claim that it shouldn’t exist or should be destroyed for that reason, or shouldn’t be seen.”

Prof. Emil Kang

Kang, executive and artistic director of Carolina Performing Arts, noted that both within historical contexts and in modern instances, the artist serves as a platform to reflect societal occurrences and issues that were pressing in the age in which they was created. 

“Artists are not artists in a vacuum," Kang said. "They are reflecting our humanity. They are chronicling it because they are actually creating a work that will be with us, that will tell us about the time.”

From a more moralistic standpoint, Kang said he perceives an artist as indistinguishable from the art that they create.

“An artist is a person first, an artist second,” Kang said. “And so, art has always been around since the beginning of humankind to chronicle our humanity. I’ve always believed that that has been the role of artists, is to chronicle our humanity. They are the ones who can put it into their form, and that’s how we record what we were like. So, to separate humanity out of the art, it makes no sense to me.”

Kang warned audiences to make their own informed decisions about whether or not they wish to separate an artist’s work from the artist. He said that having a healthy dose of skepticism will aid in making the most informed decision for each individual. 

“When we think about any research, any discovery, any curiosity, it should be based on skepticism,” Kang said. “Be skeptical about what you are reading, and find out for yourself what it means. But that requires time, effort, interest, curiosity, and if you don’t have those things, you’re going to forget it.”


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