Can We Separate Art from its Artist?


Last week, I read an article discussing Nate Parker’s upcoming film “The Birth of a Nation” and the recent controversy that has surrounded the film due to its writer. Parker, the star, writer, director, and producer of the film, was tried, along with a friend, for the alleged rape of an 18-year old college freshman in 1999. Although his friend was at first convicted, Parker was acquitted and that was the end of it. Or, so they believed. In 2012, the alleged rape victim committed suicide, assumingely due to the negligence of her case (Parker’s friend was later on released after an appeal) and the trauma the actual event caused her. Four years later, Parker’s film, which depicts Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led in 1831, is receiving a lot of Oscar buzz. According to critics however, it all goes wrong for Parker due to the included gang rape scene. Parker’s insensitivity, innocence (or lack thereof), and entire character has come into question yet again as the film scene and the woman’s recent suicide shed a new negative light on Parker and his artistry.

Before reading this article, I had never considered if a piece of work and its maker couldn’t be judged exclusively; or maybe I had never considered if they could. In my opinion, the maker is of the work. When you make art, you give a piece of yourself to it. That is, if it’s good art. The maker is the essence of what he/she creates. However, when that essence or piece of yourself hinders your work and the people involved in it, can the maker be separated when the work is still fantastic? I tried to answer this difficult question by using the analogy of controversial singers and their music. I don’t like Justin Beiber as a person, but I don’t mind his music and I actually think he has a pretty decent voice. But honestly, Bieber being an annoying brat and making decent music doesn’t even compare to Parker’s questionable character and situation.

It is quite difficult to judge a work without considering all its aspects. I think a better way to approach this question is to think about the bigger picture: does supporting an artist’s work equate to supporting the actor? Yes and no. Enjoying a person’s work does not mean that one enjoys the person, but it is a gray area because supporting the work – buying it, sharing it with friends – does subsequently financially support them. There’s no way to create exclusivity between the two which, in Parker’s case, is unfortunate. Although “The Birth of a Nation” is measuring up to be an Oscar worthy film, his character and the decisions will continue to have an effect on his art whether his audiences want them to or not. And they always will.