A friend of mine recently recommended a podcast that delves into a dark and hidden chapter in modern art history. Death of an Artist details the tumultuous relationship of artists Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta, which met a tragic end in 1985. Ana fell from a window during an argument, and through a series of technicalities and flaws within the legal system, Andre was acquitted of a murder charge, and her death was ruled a suicide. The high art world was quick to sweep this incident under the rug and, to this day, major institutions exhibiting Andre's work fail to mention Mendieta's relationship with the sculptor, let alone that he was accused of killing her. It's a classic case of separating the art from the artist, a topic that comes up with increasing frequency in the age of the internet.
The question at hand when we talk about Carl Andre, JK Rowling, Bill Cosby and many others, is whether their personal lives should have an impact on the way we interpret, and enjoy, their creations. What many now call "cancel culture" seems to make this a collective decision rather than something for the individual to tackle. For example, most art institutions have decided that Andre's sculpture is too innovative to cast aside because of a little alleged homicide. On the other hand, a large swath of society has stopped enjoying Harry Potter, a defining story for a generation, because the author JK Rowling has repeatedly made public transphobic remarks.
There are several differences between these two cases. Rowling is well known to the general population, while Andre's work is mostly understood by people highly trained in conceptual artwork. Andre's offense was undoubtedly more serious, but he was (technically) found not guilty. Rowling's remarks are widely available and indisputable- and she just keeps making more of them. There's about 30 years difference in time between these two cases, and the offenders are two different genders. Somewhere in these differences is the reason one is "cancelled" and one is "problematic" but still praised.
So, the question at hand comes back to: should we separate the art from the artist? Does their personal life affect the way we consume their creations?
I'm going to raise another example for you, this time without names... because it's so widespread, each person reading will probably think of their own examples. I even know some in my own circles.
The topic of reclaiming female autonomy and sexuality is explored by a lot of feminist artists. As a feminist myself, I'm all for the cause of women making their own choices with their bodies. Yet, there is some of this art I can't get behind, and the reason has simply to do with who made it. When a woman makes artwork concerning female sexuality, she is reclaiming it for herself. But when a man makes art about female sexuality, he is sexualizing his subject- missing the point entirely. A woman's autonomy does not come from a man's approval. Every time without fail, when I see a painting of a woman's breasts, I interpret it very differently based on the gender of the creator. This has less to do with mass "cancelling" these artists, but the point of this writing is to encourage you to think about how an artist's identity and behavior can, and should, affect the way you see their work.
When I think about Harry Potter, I think about cosplaying the characters with my best friend growing up. How am I supposed to read the books now, knowing that the author thinks that very friend is mentally ill for transitioning? (Funny how he can dress like a fictional guy, but when he dresses as himself, that's a problem. *eyeroll*) And when I see Carl Andre's work, famous for solving the "relationship to the ground" problem in sculpture, how should I not remember that his wife hit the ground from 34 stories up during an argument? I believe the personal life of a creative is intrinsically tied into all their work, and the way we interpret it should absolutely be informed by their lives.
I also think we should make our own choices on a case-by-case basis. Personally, I'm choosing to know and understand the work of these creators without fiscally supporting them. I won't pay to see a Carl Andre exhibition or buy any Harry Potter merch, even though I was a devout Harry Potter kid. But maybe you don't think the evidence was sufficient for Andre to have murdered his wife. Maybe you somehow think Rowling's statements about trans people aren't derogatory, by some twist of logic. (Sorry- can't come up with a good reason to sympathize with her, even in theory.) It's our responsibility to know why we are or are not in favor of creators, and not to just follow the crowd mentality about whether they're "cancelled" or not. After all, the masses forgot to cancel Andre.