So my friends Erin and Noah over at the Limiting Factor podcast were covering the recent renewed attention on the rape accusations against Bill Cosby and got into a discussion about whether you can separate art from the person who makes it. They don't come to a hard and fast conclusion, but they're definitely leaning towards not being able to separate the two, towards the nastiness of an artist tainting the art that they make. They make a lot of good points, but I tend to come down on the other side of this question, and today I'm going to offer some reasons why.
The traditional case study for this in the concert music world is Richard Wagner, who was, in addition to being anti-Semitic and a raging misogynist, just generally a pretty awful person. But I don't actually like Wagner's music. I think his libretti are dreck, and his dramatic pacing is abysmal. I'm with Erin and Noah on this one: To really get at the heart of this question, you have to look at something that would hurt to give up. So I'm going to look at Charles Ives.
My music doesn't sound a lot like Ives's music, but I still think of him as a formative influence. I mean this both in terms of various technical matters — certain rhythmic tics, an approach to plainspoken melody, various jump-cut transitional styles — and in a more overarching way in terms of what it means to be a composer, what music can be and do, what it means to work simultaneously within and against a tradition. Many of Ives's works are messy failures, but many of them are also brilliantly powerful and evocative. He can create controlled auditory chaos in ways few people have ever equalled, and then turn on a dime and deliver something infinitely simple and heartfelt.
He was also a bigot. I chose Ives specifically not only for because of my relationship with his music, but also because I am squarely in the outgroup he reserved a great deal of bile for: effeminate queers. Many of Ives's writings are shot thru with a toxic slurry of misogyny and homophobia that often include a paranoia about waning American "manhood"*, and this absolutely carried over into his music. He derided men who liked the tuneful, relatively consonant repertoire of the Romantic era for not being "manly" enough to handle aggressive, dissonant, modernist fare. The manuscript score of his second string quartet is littered with sneering jabs at the second violinist, meant as a parody of effete, "intellectual", conservative concert-goers. The "Concord" piano sonata lays out musical portraits of Ives's ideals of individualist, self-sufficient American manliness, altho here the homophobic tendencies are much subtler, buried further beneath the surface. Ives associates "real" masculinity with aggressive, metrically complex, dissonant music that overwhelms the timid, ineffectual, "simple" music he associates with effeminacy.
This is all pretty damning. I can easily imagine a DMAB individual who identifies in the more feminine regions of the gender nebula being completely put off by this rhetoric and deciding that they're simply not comfortable listening to the music of Charles Ives. And I think that's an entirely reasonable position to take. I am never going to argue that anyone must "get over" the distasteful aspects of a creator's views/works and appreciate/enjoy them regardless. But I do think it's an option.
Because here's the thing: I still get a lot out of listening to the music of Charles Ives. It would be truly wonderful if musical genius correlated in any way with kindness, if understanding oppressive power structures was a prerequisite for writing a heartbreaking tune, if writing mind-blowing harmonic progressions meant you were constitutionally incapable of committing a gristly double-murder [Wikipedia article about Gesualdo]. But that's not how the world works. Terrible people are capable of making glorious art.
This is an uncomfortable truth, especially for an art form like music that's so often tied so closely to directly expressing feelings. I like the music I like because of the way it makes me feel, and when I listen, I tend to feel like I'm connecting with the composer, feeling what they felt. And it's scary to think that I'm identifying with people who would spit on my very existence. If I'm feeling what they were feeling, am I in some way siding with their abhorrent actions and beliefs?
I don't think so. At the end of the day, subjective emotions are different from semantic beliefs, and don't necessarily lead to the same actions. Ives may have meant his dissonance to stand for a certain way of performing masculinity, but that's not the only thing it can stand for. I can decouple his spiky chords from his hateful ideas, and make my own associations, take from "Emmerson"'s confident swagger not the determination to be a certain kind of man but the determination to be fiercely, unapologetically queer, not bowing to the stifling conventions of a heteronormative society. The fact that I feel anger and hear anger expressed in Ives's music doesn't mean that I have to be angry at the same things he was. Ives's interpretation of his works doesn't have to be the defining one**.
Now, some caveats and complications. The terrible, wonderful abstraction that goes along with wordless concert music and allows (or even requires) endless interpretations and re-interpretations doesn't hold true with every form of art. Cole Porter's misogyny may not show up in his chord progressions, but it's plastered all over the plot and lyrics of Kiss Me, Kate, in ways that aren't salvageable without major re-writing. Homophobia is baked into Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, in ways that are explicit and damning. You can certainly read around these distasteful aspects and get things out of such works, but I think works with more semantic content are more likely to be inherently reflective of their author's problematic views instead of "merely" open to being read as in support of them. (I also think it's important to call out hypocrisy in cases where authors are presenting their works as morally instructive. Corrupt people can certainly offer good advice, but "do as I say, not as I hope you don't notice I do" is hardly a position of moral authority.)
Things are also different for living people. If Ives were alive today and espousing the views that he did, I probably wouldn't listen to, perform, or advocate for his works. Insofar as it's possible in society as it currently exists, I want to avoid giving financial support to people who promulgate oppression. But this is a matter of supporting (or not supporting) the artist, not the art itself, even tho support for the art is the proxy method by which supporting (or not supporting) the artist is carried out. Dead artists can't take their royalties and invest them in queer-bashing causes.
For me, this is part of a larger project of depedestalization. We really like the simple story of "great artist makes great work, deserves to be celebrated", but life is messier than that. All artists are human, and all humans are fallible and fuck shit up. As the tumblr saying goes: Your fave is problematic. The solution to this isn't to stop consuming art until we find someone who magically does and thinks no wrong, it's to pick apart the idea that people rise and fall as wholes. We can and should call artists out on their actions and beliefs, and there will absolutely be times when living artists (and institutions) cross lines to the point that they are worthy of financial boycott; when we present the work of dead artists, we should provide historical context and call attention to problematic aspects of the creator(s). But all of this is in the service of severing artistic ability from moral goodness. It's so tempting to lump the two together, to laud and glamorize entire people for artistic achievement, but this is a temptation we have to resist. Great works are no excuse for shitty behavior, but we don't have to let shitty behavior rob us of great works. Why should the devil get all the good tunes?
*While deriding certain men (or groups of men) as "sissies" is inherently misogynistic, Ives, at least in his writings that I've read and heard of, devoted very little attention to discussing women; his vitriolic gender policing was pretty exclusively directed at men. His sexism is almost exclusively packaged with homophobia.
**Alex Ross writes something similar in the New Yorker when he challenges the idea of Hitler's interpretation of Wagner being the defining one.