No matter what “Famous” says, Kanye West is never going to have sex with Taylor Swift. Of course he won’t — she’s an angel and she deserves better. But even if he has gone too far this time (Bill Cosby’s definitely guilty), that doesn’t make his music any less dope or you any worse of a person for listening to it. We can and should separate artists from their art.
Kanye has been almost comically controversial for his entire career. “The Life of Pablo” media firestorm aside, he has overshadowed artists at award shows, said anti-Semitic things on radio shows and performed for the president of Kazakhstan, which has one of the poorest human rights records in the world, — just to recap a few highlights. Presidents Bush and Obama have both publicly criticized his jackassery — probably one of the only issues they agree on. Some have gone so far as to petition him from performing at events (Glastonbury in 2015), and others avoid his music entirely because of his inflammatory antics.
I have a problem with this. It is one thing not to listen to Kanye out of personal taste, but boycotting his music just because he’s an ass is reactionary and closed-minded. We limit our human experience by obliging ourselves to keep art and artist together. That’s true for Kanye West and for other artists who are much, much worse.
My two favorite movies — “Chinatown” and “Annie Hall” — were directed, respectively, by a child rapist who fled the country before serving his time and an alleged child abuser who married his adopted daughter. Now, would I prefer that weren’t the case? Absolutely. I’m not sure I even think that Roman Polanski and Woody Allen should still be walking around making art. I wish their movies disgusted me as much as their actions, and I admit that their personal atrocities are not easy to accept.
But then again, if I refused to watch their movies on those grounds, I would have never experienced the incisive political and social commentary in “Chinatown” or the hilarious analyses of relationships and romance in “Annie Hall.” These are worthwhile ideas, and the fact that they came from reprehensible artists does not make them any less insightful. Loving “Chinatown” and hating Roman Polanski don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
For that same reason, if my roommate tells me a joke and I laugh, I shouldn’t feel bad afterwards when he reveals the joke was written by Bill Cosby. Yes, in that situation, I would definitely prefer that somebody else had come up with the joke. But I can still appreciate the structure of the joke and the witty social commentary behind it.
Though cleaving valuable ideas from their creators might not be a problem, having to financially support detestable people in order to access those ideas is another matter entirely. To some, paying $12 to see the new Woody Allen movie might seem like financing child abuse, for example.
There are two ways to deal with this problem: The first, though admittedly not the best solution, is to pirate the art. In the age of illegal downloads and proxy servers, there is no real reason your money has to land in dirty pockets to access the potentially fruitful works of art the odious owners of those pockets made. Of course, I can’t really advise anyone to do anything illegal, and piracy is ethically tricky.
This brings me to the alternative method: pay them anyway. Say I didn’t want to pay to see “Blue Jasmine” because I didn’t want to support Woody Allen. Sure, some of the money from “Blue Jasmine” is going to put food on Allen’s table, and that might be a little tough for me to swallow. But my money isn’t directly financing sexual abuse or any ideas that support it; it’s buying a story about class, mental illness, poor decisions and their consequences.
The only reason — and it is a valid reason — not to pay money for art made by horrible people is to make yourself feel better. Maybe the principle of not financially supporting someone you hate is worth more to you than the potentially good ideas in their art. I would disagree, but I’d understand.
Regardless, I don’t think that Kanye West is hateful enough to even warrant that debate. At worst, he says nasty stuff that you can choose to ignore. He’s pretentious and obnoxious, but he’s not a villain.
And even if he were, everyone is at least a little bit terrible — artists famously more so than the general population. By invalidating ideas produced by people we don’t like, we lose the ability to collect as many of the good ones as we can and we miss out on powerful ideas.