Art, Artist, and Context

When the things you love are done by people who do bad things, there’s a tendency to want to ignore it. To, as they say everywhere right now, “separate the art from the artist.” There’s a tendency to want to hold tight to those memories; after all, those feelings come with an origin story, and they form the fabric of our taste. We meet friends over common interests, we fall in love with the same songs, we connect through art in all of its forms. We don’t think of those connections as formed by people with demons, as things that might be untouchable long after their creation.

June 2020: Art, Artist, and Context

  • “Mouth Log” — Sidney Gish
  • “Lilacs” — Waxahatchee
  • “Turns Me” — Bacchae
  • “Alone Down There” — Modest Mouse
  • “walking in the snow” — Run the Jewels
  • “Phantom Pt. II” — Justice
  • ”What Is This Loneliness” – Deltron 3030 (w/ Damon Albarn & Casual)
  • “Leaning On You” — HAIM
  • “Devil Town” — Cavetown
  • “As You Are” — Travis
  • “Overseas” — Thundercat (w/ Zach Fox)
  • “ICU” — Phoebe Bridgers
  • “Windshield” — Engine Kid
  • “In / Out” — En Attendant Ana
  • “Shake It Off” — Robert Bradley
  • “Nuff’ of the Ruff Stuff” — Queen Latifah
  • “Supernaut” — Brownout
  • “Came Out of a Lady” — Rubblebucket
  • “I Remember Everything” — John Prine

This month, I had added a P.O.S. song to my monthly mixtape, as I have several times before. P.O.S., an incredible talent in the Minneapolis rap scene, was recently called out for manipulative and predatory abuse. It forced a choice: do I keep his song on the playlist, or do I pull it off?

I pulled it off. But I have not — and have no plans to — pull his songs off of my older mixtapes.

I struggle with this, because I’m not sure if that’s the right thing or not. As inconsequential as “removing a song from this month’s playlist” is in the story of life, this was at least an easy, preventative action. Past mixtapes are in the past; they represent a moment in time, and the differentiation between adjusting past decisions and preventing new ones feels significant. The context is different.

I’ve been thinking about context a lot, thanks to a post that Ethan Marcotte wrote recently about context, within web artifacts: that in our line of work — the consulting on and building of digital products — there is an outsized focus on the thing and not the culture and conditions that inform and shape that thing.

Usually, this type of conversation leads to discussions about user testing and governance and buy-in, but Ethan goes a step further in pointing us to Lisa Maria Martin’s post about politics and its place within professional conference talks. Context isn’t just about the space around an artifact, but the trends and political machinations that circle everything we do.

A site map cannot ignore its users. Education about web design processes cannot ignore the politics inherent within those processes.

Our selection in music cannot ignore the actions of its creators.

Which leaves us with a decision, and often a hypocritical one. Do you quit an artist? Do you simply stop supporting them? Do you erase them from your past, or do you move forward without them? While I no longer add Michael Jackson to new playlists, I also have not gone as far as to remove him from my “Best of the 80s” playlist. The same goes for P.O.S.

But that line isn’t drawn very clearly, and it moves from artist to artist. An artist like R. Kelly, who have been known abusers for as long as I can remember, has never even really entered the conversation — both because it doesn’t feel appropriate and because his actions prevented me from ever really becoming a fan in the first place. In our minds, some artists warrant a lifetime ban, while others might sneak back in after a year or so. It all depends on our own experiences. Our connection to that music. The severity of the abuse. Our history with that type of abuse.

For me, this feels like a matter of archival library science. The decision is easy, and superficial. My context is small potatoes next to those who have experienced that pain, that betrayal. Those who are affected by that mistrust or abuse, who have seen those things first hand, don’t get to make a decision as to whether those songs qualify for cancellation or not: the pain is theirs, and no amount of removing a song from a playlist will change that. Our smaller choices are inconsequential, which further highlights the way context plays into our inability to let go of our past; the deeper the emotional connection, the harder it is to throw the art out with the artist.

Which means there’s no real answer. The cues you take, the information you choose to relay, the amount of information you have in the first place — these are the markers you follow. That’s not a cop-out — it’s really true: you literally can still do anything you want. Some can separate the artist from the art; others see the artist and their beliefs as necessary context to the art itself. To some, “A Simple Twist of Fate” is a song of heartbreak; to others, it’s a song about Bob Dylan’s heartbreak, those details make it more real and more impressive.

So for now, I will do what I can. What their music means to me — to all of us — may change; it may ebb and flow as that context and the results of their exposure play out in real time. I believe in forgiveness, but I also believe in justice and consequences. I get to be judicious in my own balance between the two, and in my own interpretation of artist vs. art. I will try to keep these mixtapes free of known abusers, to the extent of my knowledge, in order to respect the lives of those who are abused. But I expect some rehabilitation is possible.

I will let the past stand as historical, but will learn from those changes. I will understand the art and artist are intimately intertwined and only when the context is right can they be separated.

I will also listen to more of this new HAIM record.

This was lovingly handwritten on June 30th, 2020