Seperating Art from Artist?
In his rich, rhythmic satire Don’t Start Me Talkin’, novelist Tom Williams traces the path—ever-intersecting, ever-diverging—of two bluesmen. Brother Ben, a household name, cuts a Buddy Guy figure in Williams’ fictional world. Silent Sam, his protege, watches Ben with big, clear eyes.
Brother Ben creates himself after a white man’s image of a black-and-blues artist. On stage and in character, he assumes a folksy manner, feigns ignorance at the fine print of the business and sticks to a mythical origin story. All of this, the book takes great pains to show, a necessary evil for white people to feel comfortable embracing Ben and his music.
Off stage, he makes no concessions. Ben holds complete control over his career managing himself under his birth name. He delivers what predominantly white audiences want, winking all the while at Sam, since his act allows him the freedom and financial security to play music he loves.
His young sideman, serving as a proxy for the readers, wrestles with questions: Is it okay to play the game if you’re winning the game? Or does Ben’s approach simply prove how rigged the game was all along?
Similar questions surface throughout the wisdom literature of the Bible: How long will the rich continue to pad their pockets? How long will oppressors step on the necks of fellow image-bearers? God responds through his word: “Not forever. And not today.”
Our cultural moment joins in with God’s response and movements like #MeToo continue to elevate vital questions. Among them is the question, Can we separate the art from the artist? Is it possible, or even right, to draw meaning from the cultural artifacts of Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, or R. Kelly when we have some idea of the evil such men have wrought?
The question crackles with necessity and gravity. Yet a strange irony surrounds it. Some of us asking this question for the first time bisect artists and their work without blinking. White people have generations of practice in separating works of art from the black and brown bodies which made them.
Any accurate history of American popular music accounts for the ways white audiences co-opt, contort, and downright steal the creative labor of our black and brown neighbors. Yet, in this age, with our heightened sensitivity and questions, we overlook quieter yet equally insidious means of dividing creators from their creativity.
A sharp separation occurs when white Christians praise black musicians such as Lecrae, Sho Baraka, and Jackie Hill Perry for their verve and truth, then turn around and shout, “Stick to the gospel!” as they speak out against racial sin.
Fanboys hang on every Chance the Rapper tweet, Kanye West mic drop, and gesture Kendrick Lamar makes, but let the realities these artists describe travel in one ear and out the other.
A certain brand of listener turns up the music of these artists while posting tone-deaf political conclusions to social media. The artists they amplify ring in their ears as they double down on positions which burden the very communities these artists represent.
Surely to wholeheartedly adopt the politics of our favorite artists displays a lack of critical thinking. And to ignore them altogether reveals a lack of compassion. Artists are people too, of course, and they will see the world through cloudy lenses and broken glass. Some figures—think Bob Dylan or Kanye West—constantly shift their feet spiritually and try on personas like hats; to follow in their each and every footstep would make you dizzy.
But letting the bass rattle our chests and never softening our hearts to the political and physical realities of our favorite artists exposes us as users—consumers in the worst sense of the word.
My stomach turns when I see it play out in real time; it turns over again when I do it myself. My head moves to the sounds of my favorite jazz artists, yet my heart sits still. I immerse myself in hip-hop and soul, but secretly wish the artists would sing about something I can relate to. I miss the very invitation their music presents: to relate, to understand, to enlarge my vision of the world.
What does it say about us when we scream “stick to the gospel” at an artist whose spiritual perseverance otherwise inspires us? Perhaps we misunderstand the horizontal dimension of what Christ died to win.
What kind of people bear witness to the heart behind a song, throw their hands up in the air and say, “Just give me something I can dance to”? People who have ears, but know nothing about listening.
We will pay black and brown bodies to amuse us, but pay black and brown hearts little mind. Somehow we want our artists alive yet inattentive, engaged yet tame.
Recreating artists in our harmless, unchallenging images of who they should be yields a little entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. Black and brown beats matter. But black and brown lives matter more. Sneaking into their experiences through their art then slinking away before those experiences cost us something creates a division of body and soul—matter and what matters—that God never intended. A refusal to hear someone out translates to a failure to love our neighbor. Even if our neighbor carries a microphone and rides in a tour bus.
Hearing out black and brown artists speaks a better word. Can we separate the art from the artist? In some cases, perhaps. In still others, we answer by walking away. But the dividing lines white consumers draw do us no good. Loving God and loving people requires being recreated by the sounds and images artists produce.