How Far Can We Separate the Artist from Their Art?

By | 16:23 5 comments

There is a huge elephant in the room amongst my friendship group, and his name is Ian Watkins.

Lostprophets was a great band.
Sure, the rock didn't really break any new ground: it was basic but high-energied and uplifting, with great stomping songs like Streets of Nowhere, your classic emo ballads like Rooftops and The Light That Burns Twice as Bright... and earlier thrashing songs that nod to pop-punk and nu metal like We Are Godzilla, You Are JapanWe loved the music, it made us happy, it was art, like all music is art.

Like all art, memories attached themselves to it. We put on the albums when we relaxed together and were happy.  The music consoled us when we were down. We followed their progress in rock magazines. When we were younger we put up posters on our walls. We went to see the gigs (hell, my friends went to enough that you could have filled a whole scrapbook with Lostprophets ticket stubs alone). We thrilled over getting closer and closer to the front row. We bought the merchandise. Back then, one of the best events in my friends' lives were actually getting to meet their idols after winning a competition. To talk to them. Thank them. Take photos with them. To stand face to face with the lead singer.

Which is why it was devastating when the news broke out.

On the 26th November 2013, Lostprophets' lead singer - Ian Watkins - pleaded guilty to the attempted rape and sexual assault of a child under 13, but not guilty to rape. This followed his charge on 19th December 2012 with conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a one year old girl. He also pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault involving children, the creation and posting of indecent images, and conspired with two mothers to abuse their children. Videos of his abuses were found in an encrypted computer which, reportedly, had the password 'Ifuckkids'. In a recorded phonecall made from Parc Prison to a female fan he described the whole situation as "Mega Lolz", which mimiced the band's merchandising catchphrase.

"It was like either me go up there and say 'Come on, it wasn't that bad, nobody got hurt'.

"I do my charm or do I end up making things worse for myself or do I just say I was off my head and can't remember?"
Discussing his possible sentence, he added: "I'm going to put out a statement on the 18th now (the day of his sentencing) just to say it was mega lolz, I don't know what everyone is getting so freaked out about."

Despite insisting that he was too drugged to remember the crimes and was 'showing off', he was sentenced to 35 years, with at least 29 to be spent in prison. Two of his female accomplices - themselves mothers - were also charged and imprisoned.

Sat in my chest of drawers, there is a MEGALOLZ t-shirt. Sat in my ipod, there are five albums of music where he sings. As I sit deleting the songs off my 'Top Rated' playlist, Taff Street is pulling up paving stones that bear the Streets of Nowhere lyrics. Elsewhere, MEGA LOLZ T-shirts are selling out on amazon and ebay in a sudden rush and a man has tattooed his face on his leg. While the newspapers are up in arms about Watkins standing to make £150,000 from the band's break up, the fans try to reassemble themselves.

Knowing what the front man has done, can you still be a fan of Lostprophets' music? tackled this very question, and sought out Lostprophets fans how they feel about Watkins' confession and whether they could still bring themselves to listen to the music. It's worth looking at the whole article, but here are some examples of the responses:

How has Ian Watkins' confession affected you?
Female, 16: I'll still listen to Lostprophets' music, but will probably be disgusted every time I hear it and not enjoy it at all.

So surely it makes sense not to listen to it?
It’s a shame this had to happen, as I loved that band so much. I still have respect for the other members, as long as they had no idea what was going on.

Can you ever separate the music from Ian Watkins and his crimes?
I don’t think I’ll be able to separate them, as I really looked up to him. Every time I hear his voice my mind will go straight to what he has done.

How have your friends reacted?
My friends will be absolutely disgusted and not listen to him any more. As for fans in general, I suppose it’s up to each person.

Hi there. Do you still like Ian Watkins as a person? 
Female, 15: Well, before the trial I did still like him as I didn't quite believe it all. But now he's pleaded guilty, it's difficult to like someone who's done that. So I don't still like him as a person, but I doubt many people do. As an artist, he is good, but I don't think anyone is gonna see him the same. But that doesn't change how their music sounds – it's still good.
Are you worried what people will say if they catch you listening to Lostprophets?
No, I'm not bothered about what they say – if they even say anything – because the music is completely different to what's happened with Ian. My mate and her sister like them, and I think they'll probably still listen to the music, too.

What would it take you to stop listening to somebody’s music?
Well, I see the music as a completely different thing. I don't know how bad something would have to be, really. Obviously it's wrong what Ian's done, but the rest of the band haven't done anything so it shouldn't stop me from listening to them.

Overall there is confusion, and I must admit that I count myself around the morally shellshocked. In my head I know that the music is not simply about Ian Watkins. That it is a collective effort of the band. That it shouldn't affect our enjoyment of the music at all and that the music has not become any less great or the lyrics any less true. But I still can't bring myself to press play. Even in linking to those videos in my first paragraph, I pressed the pause button as quickly as possible. The problem will always be this:

How far can we separate the artist from their art?

There's no denying that the art world rather pivots on the celebrity of the artist. It's one of the reasons why art becomes more valuable after the creator is dead (one of the others might be, if we're going to be cynical, the simple fact that the 'factory' of the artist has stopped production, so what we have left is more valuable.)  Just as the MEGA LOLZ T-Shirts are selling with new vigor and interest following Watkin's conviction, art also can gain new value due to the reputation of the painter.

Perhaps the greatest case in point is none other than Hitler himself.

To my eye, the above pictures are very pretty. Sensitive biscuit-tin paintings, but pretty nevertheless. Yet they were painted by the most infamous dictator in history. 
While I'd be a fool to morally compare Hitler and Watkins, nevertheless both sets of the artworks that made them famous were created to some degree before their crimes either occurred or came to light. Untainted by their personalities they can be regarded unsullied in their own right. There should be no shame in admitting an enjoyment in their creation.

In the extreme right-wing wiki Metapedia, when discussing his art they quote this description by Leon Degrelle in Hitler the Artist:

'(Hitler) was able to draw skillfully when he was only eleven. His early drawings and watercolours at the age of 15 were full of poetry and sensitivity...Hist artistic orientation took many forms...he wrote poetry and dedicated an entire work to his sister Paula. At the age of 16...he embarked on the creation of an opera.' 

Clearly he had some talent, though not enough to court success. He had some affection and playfulness in his choice of subject - even choosing to paint some Disney characters. Without his reputation he was unremarkable, his art can be enjoyed for it's own sake. But the reputation, inescapably, remains.

For Richard Wollheim (1923-2003), we shouldn't ever ignore an artist's past or personality:

'Artists are conditioned by their context- their beliefs, histories, emotional dispositions, physical needs and communities - and the world that they interpret is a world of constant change.'

No creative art is totally independent of the institutions of which it operates. Therefore we can extend it to mean that no art is independent of the artist either. They shouldn't be separated. They communicate with one another and one leads to the other. In the idealism of Hitler's paintings we might see the reflections of the idea of the Aryan ideal, for example.The instinct of wrongness that you can't shake when you think of him is, in the end, correct and should be embraced.

But is it as simple as this?

Art is subject to interepretation in all of its forms. We see that more than ever now that the internet has escalated and evolved fan-culture. Any piece of work does, in a way, belong to its fans. If those that view the art take something new away from it - something separate to the artist's original meaning and the work itself - does this then mean that the artist's opinion and, therefore his viewpoint, is ireelevant?

The fantastic Pbs Ideas Channel discussed just this as they analysed whether the fans of Neon Genesis Evangelon should listen to the creator's opinion that the show was 'meaningless'. In short, it seems that his opinion really doesn't matter.

 Certainly enough people agree.
According to Roland Barthes in 'Death of the Author' the modern writer is is born simultaneously with his text. He is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing.'...'Text does not consist of a line of words releasing a single "theological" meaning, despite the Author and critics' impotent attempts to do so.' Therefore, in the end, 'the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.' 

Certainly my own opinion slants this way. It is possible to enjoy a piece of any form of art without knowing the history of its creator, or indeed his or her purpose for creating it. While certain emotions would have been invested into a painting or piece of music, it doesn't mean that the piece inherently takes on these characteristics. If this was true then interpretation would be pointless. For example, my favourite poem in the world is The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock by T.S Eliot. For some this is a straight up tale of a man who is lovesick for a woman. But for me, it's a look at the dull frustration and heartache of a life that can never quite be fully lived, all seen through the eyes of someone with a traveller's soul and  a mind full of quiet suburban social cowardice. The poem is something I love because it is me. It moves me to tears almost every time because of what I put to it. Similarly, the man or woman who turns to it whenever they need validation of unrequited love also puts themselves into it. Whatever was Eliot's original purpose, that pales in comparison to what people need to see in those words. And, if his intention is not relevant, then surely the history and morality of the artist himself is no longer relevant either.

This is something that many artists are acutely aware of. Oscar Wilde, for example, is as much an icon for his lifestyle as for his art: the artist as a celebrity. His fame, we can expect, might not be the same if it wasn't for his dandy fashion, the romantic hedonism of his lifestyle or even his sexuality and subsequent conviction. Oscar Wilde the man encapsulates the tragedy of oppression, the comedy of wit, and the beauty of talent all in one. All of these give layers to his art. But even Wilde was quick to renounce ownership over his own creations.

In 'The Critic as Artist' Wilde wrote:

'The meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it.'

Furthermore, in 'The Decay of Lying' one of the characters clarifies that 'Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as thought has, and develops purely on its own lines.'
In the end, the artists' work simply is no longer attached to him. We can completely separate the artist from their art, and lose nothing in doing so.

But in the end, logic can only take you so far.

Whatever you believe about how the artist and their art interact, it is always going to be hard to shake off the knowledge of where that art came from.  You can't delete your own gut feelings.

Art is the child of the artist. You may love the offspring with all your heart, and you know that they are a different person than their parents. But the parents' genes went into  creating them and, like it or not, you're more than likely to have to eat christmas dinner across from the wretched parents every once and a while. 
I suppose that all you can hope to do is to learn how to look the parents in the eye when the time calls for it, until you can return home with the offspring that you love and appreciate them for their own sake.


Lostprophets statement following Watkins' conviction
 The Independant
The Daily Mail - £150,000
BBC News: Wales
BBC News: Wales - Paving Slabs to Go
Ian Watkins Wikipedia
Daily Mirror
Daily Mail: T-shirts
Mirror: Tattoo
Roland Barthes - 'The Death of the Author' 
Oscar Wilde - 'The Critic as Artist'
Oscar Wilde - 'The Decay of Lying'
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  1. Really, really, really great article. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Thank you, I'm very glad that you enjoyed it :)

  2. The artists opinion of what their work is worth and their relationship to and perception of people who see the art, as in neon Genesis evangelion and Oscar Wilde, is interesting but not comparable to a situation where that artist has committed a crime. Our reception of that work as fans is more than just an issue of artistic merit or critical engagement because of the direct and indirect financial contributions we make by continuing to engage.

    1. Ah, absolutely! I really didn't touch on that in this article so thank you for bringing it up, it's definitely an important part to consider.
      I suppose that, in the case of Lostprophets, since the band inevitably broke up the financial impact has been lessened. In a way if we choose to listen to old stuff and wear old tshirts that causes less of an effect (though the latter might be called 'advertising') But at the same time it's important that radio stations etc have to stop playing song so that the royalties are stopped from funding Watkins.
      I suppose in Lostprophets' case the opposite is also true: we can use our pennies to show support to his innocent band members who are themselves victims of his crimes - their careers were destroyed and they had to pick themselves back up again. So, while we might on a theoretical or moral standpoint still listen to their old music without worrying about the financial implications, we should also practically vote with our money that we still appreciate the innocent member's talents and want to see more of them. Even if we have to warm up to the new directions they will take. For example, I had little to do with Richard Oliver (a member of the band) beforehand, but after the blowout I make an effort to support him on social media for the Art and music he now makes.
      So yes, really great point, anon. And one that probably warrants a revisit to this article in the future to add on this perspective :)

  3. Thank you Preludes for such a thoughtful response. I hadn't considered your angle of actively supporting the other band members, but it's an effective way of mitigating the harm done to their careers in this particular instance.
    I think the question of whether you can separate the art from the artist is subjective, and you could make the case that it varies from medium to medium. I find I can read books and look at artwork by people I disagree with or know to have done horrible things, but can't listen to music when I no longer respect the person who made it, and other people's experiences with different mediums may be very different again. What I found interesting about the excerpt from the vice interview was the way the interviewees were making the case for and against continuing to listen to Lostprophets music on an intellectual level. There might have been many reasons for that - uncertainty about the information available about the crimes, the nature of the questions asked - but I thought it was interesting not to have recognised in their answers the visceral "hell, no" I felt when I tried to listen to Amanda Palmer after her graceless response to criticisms of Elephant, Elephant. I think what we expect of artist and why we respond the way we do, and how variable those responses might be, is a really complex and interesting question, especially where the relationship to the art as an experience or a set of ideas or feelings in the mind of the audience, divorced totally from the maker, intersects with our social role when the maker is alive and raping children. With some actions, there's a point at which "what should we do?" becomes a more important question than "what do we do?".