R. Kelly Meets Catullus
Biases and The Art-Artist Distinction
By Davis Smith
The art-artist distinction, as I am calling it, is a wall between the content of the art and the character of the artist who made it. This distinction has had its defenders since the days of Ancient Rome and has value even today. The distinction claims that you can’t infer the artist’s character traits from the content of their art. Like all walls, it also stops movements from the other direction. It claims that the artist is separate from the art; that the negative aspects of the artist do not (necessarily) depreciate the value of the art. This distinction extends to all forms of art, from music and poetry to film to paintings. This wall will also, ideally, protect the researcher from the research (and vice versa).
With the recent events involving the musical artist R. Kelly and the results of his court-cases, people have, once again, begun to chisel out cracks in this wall and have sought to proclaim that one can’t separate the art from the artist. The art, to wax poetic, is an extension of their soul and therefore must express their character. What, then, should we do? Should we abandon the distinction and thereby hinder artistic and academic freedom for fear that our work would reflect poorly on us? No, not at all, those who invariantly violate this distinction are committing a fallacy.
Fallacies grow and become commonplace when we encounter instances which, as luck would have it, the inference gets us to the correct result. Because of this, we end up using it again and when it fails, we either ignore it or we chalk it up to some odd instance and continue using the bad informal method. From this general description, one could come to the conclusion that this confirmation bias is the mother of all other informal biases. Now, this is too bold of a claim for me to make in this here, though it could be the case for many of the biases out there. In this blog, I will be outlining some of the fallacies at play when one seeks to violate the art-artist distinction and give some of the core principles for when violating the distinction is not fallacious.
The biases working against the distinction
Cases where the art accurately reflects the artist’s character are actually quite rare but they are very easy to remember. This cognitive ease makes us more apt to generalize and think that other cases follow suit. For example, we are more likely to remember something if it rhymes. Take this example “Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so.” This short rhyme has stuck in my mind since at least kindergarten. The rhyme gives my mind something to latch onto and thereby remember it. The cognitive ease of the retrieval of the memory makes us easily jump to the conclusion that it’s true. Commercials with catchy jingles play on this bias and so do some lawyers in the courtroom (“if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”). In fact, I make use of this in my classes to help students learn. I use humorous or gross examples and rhyme to help the information sink into the students’ minds. Gut-wrenching or outstandingly funny cases have just as much power to stick in the mind as rhymes, if not more (it’s even better when both are the case, gross and funny). Being easy to remember, however, does not entail truth and certainly does not entail that we should generalize from it.
Moving back to the issue at hand, many of the cases where the art does reflect accurately on the artist’s character are grossly immoral. Any person with a semblance of a kind heart will react negatively to these cases. This makes them easy to remember. Since we remember them so easily, this cognitive ease makes us think that we can use this inference elsewhere and make judgments about the character of the artist based on the content of their art. Below are just some examples of when people are apt to make this kind of jump.
To start with, many of us likely remember the events involving Norwegian Black Metal and churches in the 1990s. Black metal, as a genre, is satanic. This may be because the artists legitimately believe and worship in such a faith or this may be because they are putting on a character. The Norwegian black metal band Emperor’s drummer, going by the stage name Faust, was, according to bandmates, obsessed with serial killers and murder. In 1992, Faust murdered a man without remorse or provocation. At around the same time, various central figures in the genre were burning down churches and encouraging others to do likewise. Upon hearing this, many people were outraged and likely easily remembered the content of those events. Black metal artists engaging in such behavior sticks in the mind and enforces the idea that the kind of art they produce tells you about them as a person.
In a more positive light, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is a wonderful educational program which taught millions of children and expressed kindness, love, and many other good things. Mr. Rogers himself, from the resources I have uncovered, was a legitimately good person. The art was a reflection of the artist. Since Mr. Rogers was such an impactful figure, connecting anything to him would be easily remembered and that will assist in the generalization.
Recently, the events involving R. Kelly have come to public light. For example, in 1994, Kelly released the album “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” while at the same time being illegally married to a 15 year old girl. As Jim DeRogatis, who had been reporting on these cases since the beginning, puts it in a 2021 interview with NPR “There is something about the evil that Kelly portrays in his music, it may sound hyperbolic, but he celebrates an unfettered vision of hedonism that shows zero concern for where he takes his pleasures, the people he takes his pleasures with, it was there from the beginning.” One could claim that the nature of these lyrics and the title of the album he produced for his under-aged paramour only seem obvious now because we have perfect hindsight, but the title alone, should have at least given us pause and made us look into the personal life of the artist. As DeRogatis points out, the lyrics of many of his songs also paint a picture of the kinds of non-consensual relationships which have been brought to light. Songs sung by Kelly, if viewed with the sort of hindsight we can now afford, detail and basically confess to the immoral sexual activities he engaged in. Various articles have been published, and will likely continue to be published, outlining the lyrics and how closely they line up with the evidence and the accusations against Kelly. We should have heard them and looked more closely into his affairs.
Examples like these easily jump to mind when the appropriate trigger is used and that ease makes us generalize and hold that the art must reflect the character of the artist. But, these examples, as I mentioned earlier, are rare. So, we turn now to the arguments for maintaining the distinction.
Cases In Favor of the Distinction
There have been arguments in defense of this distinction as early as Ancient Rome and it feels appropriate to start there. Catullus was a poet whose more romantic works centered on the affection of a potentially fictional woman called Lesbia. To dramatize the historical events, Catullus ended up writing the poem which he later called milia multa basiorum (“many thousands of kisses”, known today as Catullus 5), which was a rather passionate poem directed at Lesbia. In response to this poem, two rival poets Aurelius and Furius began to question the manliness of Catullus. In Roman culture, this was quite the insult. So, Catullus responded with one of the most offensive poems ever penned even to this day (known in polite circles as Catullus 16, but also referenced using the first line). Starting with the first line, the poem slings insults and sexual threats at the two other poets (all of which insult their manliness). Though the poem as a whole serves as a wonderful example of Roman perspectives on sexual morality and works as a source for profane Latin vocabulary, we should turn to lines 3 through 8 of the poem, as they make a claim about the art-artist Distinction:
Qui me ex versiculis meis putastis/quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum./nam castum esse decet pium poetam/ipsum, versiculos nihil necesse est,/ qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem,/
si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici.
Here is my translation, focusing on meaning rather than poetic flow:
You who think that I am without shame because my poems are sensitive. While it is proper for a pious poet to be virtuous, his poetry needn’t be. In fact, they have some wit and some charm, if they are sensitive and a little shameless.
As you can see, Catullus recognized that the content of the art shouldn’t reflect on the artist. He fully admits that his poetry is a little shamelessly romantic but contends that this does not reflect upon him. In his personal life, he could be a withdrawn person without such passions. He is claiming that you can’t make assumptions about the artist based on the art. The fact that the poetry was sensual makes it stick in the mind and the negative connotations of it being unmanly, at least at the time, caused people to violate the art-artist distinction and assume that Catullus was a wuss.
Typically, the guards on the wall see the attempts at a breach coming from the other side. There have been multiple cases people claim that the artist’s actions somehow taint or depreciate the art they have previously produced; for example, J.K. Rowling’s opinions about transgendered individuals, H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, and Michael Jackson’s pedophilia. The wall as it stands, protects the art from the artist’s nefarious activities or opinions. Much like how the child is not responsible for the crimes of their parents, the art should be unsullied by the immorality of the artist. Many are willing to make this claim. So, shouldn’t the artist be protected from accusations based on the art they produce?
We can see this wall protecting us from giving admiration to those who don’t deserve it. Many will remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a series which inspired and empowered young women. It rejects the stereotypical role of a young woman in the genre and places her as the hero. If we were to make an inference from the art to the artist, we would conclude that the creator is a feminist and open-minded defender of women. The opposite is the case. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, is currently accused of being both physically and verbally abusive to the women on set. We see here that the art-artist distinction saves us from assuming that a misogynist is a feminist.
There are other cases where violating this distinction would be fallacious, especially when we look into the world of metal music. The lead singer and the lyricist for the metal band Cannibal Corpse, who goes by the stage name Corpsegrinder, has sung such charming hits as “Shredded Humans,” “The Undead Will Feast,” and “Rancid Amputation.” From titles, the characters they portray, and the very name of the band, one would think that Corpsegrinder is an immoral, blood-thirsty, and demented person. Corpsegrinder is not any of those things, however. For example, he really enjoys playing claw machines for stuffed animals and then donates the winnings. Rob Zombie has a long list of grotesque and violent art both in film and music. Does that entail that he is a grotesque and violent person? No, in fact, he is vegan on ethical grounds and uses his home as an animal shelter. Going the other way, Country music often depicts scenes of rural America, driving tractors, dirt roads, and conservative wholesome living. Does it follow that the artists producing these songs engage or even like such activities? No not necessarily. It’s often a character, a persona, they put on.
Each of these examples gives us ample evidence to claim that attributing character traits to the artist based on the art they produce is fallacious. To claim that we can and should make such an inference would need to have stronger evidence and more extreme examples than the ones we have seen here.
When should we let them through?
As with all informal fallacies, there are going to be cases where the inference gets the right answer by luck. If we can isolate the variables which allowed the inference to work, then we can allow for some exceptions to the rule. Here are some clues which might illuminate whether the inference is warranted.
First, is the reference or questionable content in the art out of place given the genre? For example, with Cannibal Corpse and Rob Zombie, the references to blood, gore, and mayhem are not out of place in the genre. This means that we shouldn’t necessarily hold it against the artist. It’s possible that they are using the genre as a cover for their dispositions and behavior, but merely being in line with the genre is not enough to hold it against the artist. With R. Kelly, references to certain sexual behaviors are not out of place, but references to certain age ranges and individuals within those ranges are certainly out of place.
Second, are there sources or reports of the artist having certain dispositions or being engaged in the behavior outside of the artistic content? If there are, then the content does not stand alone and it can be used to bolster the claims against the artist. The reports need to be properly vetted and confirmed, just like any other claim, but they have the added support. With the members of Cannibal Corpse and Rob Zombie, there are no such reports (as far as I am aware at the time of writing this). This means, in conjunction with the previous question, they are doubly protected by the wall. With R. Kelly and the various people involved in Norwegian Black Metal, there were/are reports of the behavior and those reports had been properly vetted. This means that, for those individuals, the connections could reasonably be made.
Third, and this applies to the artist tainting the art, does the art glorify or depict dispositions or behaviors of the artist? This question can be applied on a case by case basis. For example, with H.P. Lovecraft, some of his work is very racist so the artist does further sully the art. But there are other works by him which are more subdued in that regard and should be immune from the criticism. Buffy the Vampire Slayer does not depict or glorify misogyny, so it too should be immune from the creator’s despicable nature.
Some Concluding Remarks
The rules for the art-artist distinction apply equally well to the research and the researcher. Both artists and academics need to defend their respective freedoms to research and create as they see fit without fear of how their work reflects upon them. In recent years, I have heard many reports of academics being denied advancement or jobs at various colleges and universities because of the research they are engaged in, not because it’s irrelevant but because it’s in some way irreverent. These Ad Hominem attacks against an academic’s character, if solely based on what they research, are not only fallacious, but they are also an attack on our academic freedom and our abilities to advance our fields. The same questions apply for whether the research reflects on the researcher: Are the references and questionable content out of place given the research? Are there reports of the researcher having certain behaviors or dispositions outside of the content of the research? Asking those two questions could save us a lot of heartbreak and protect us from unwarranted attacks.
Davis Smith earned his Master’s Degree in Philosophy from Arizona State University and is an adjunct Philosophy professor at Pierce College and Bellevue College. He specializes in teaching introductory level courses. His areas of expertise include free will, time, and language. His current projects relate to the plausibility of libertarian free will, the philosophy of rhyme, and the philosophy of profanity.
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