Harry Potter and the art of separating the art from the artist

By Nicole Leslie Charria

Johnny Depp, Michael Jackson and JK Rowling. All creators of beautiful art. But what do you do when the art you love and grew up with is made by a fantastic beast? Is it possible to put aside moral aversion to enjoy art again?

Lockdown has provided the opportunity for many of us to reconnect with ourselves, slowing down from our busy work schedules and taking more ‘me time’. For myself, this has meant a lot of reading.

I went back to my favourite childhood series, Harry Potter, in the midst of Rowling’s transphobia scandal. In a 3600 word essay and a string of tweets, Rowling implied that trans women were not women. Acknowledging cultural inaccuracies and inappropriately written characters, as well as knowing that for people who her comments have hurt, the series is no longer the same. Rowling’s magical universe taught us many lessons; above all, to be brave, and to love everyone. But it is hard re-reading knowing some of the decisions taken in her writing are marginalising and hurting members of society.

Following her Tweet where she showed offence to ‘people who menstruate’ being used en lieu of ‘women’, the internet has begun to pick apart her most famous books; highlighting elements of her them that do not sit quite right, and calling out outdated stereotypes. Previous tweets and comments such as Rowling’s announcement that the character of  Dumbledore was gay, shows her changing details of her books in her attempt at diversification. Here, Rowling committed the classic literary crime: telling not showing.

The issue was not her sudden desire to make the magical universe diverse. In fact, she defended the decision to cast Black actress, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Having openly gay characters, or a Black Hermione would not have changed anything about the books in a negative way. 

However, her futile attempts to change ‘canon’ details about characters such as Hermione and Dumbledore echoes less a person who is trying to make a beautiful realm accessible for all children but instead, appears as more of PR strategy, shoehorned in to appease the crowd.

Rowling’s willingness to criticise her creation is admirable. Her lack of diversity stems not from a malicious attempt to exclude, but rather the classic mistake white writers make: seeing themselves reflected in the worlds they inhabit doesn’t inspire more diverse writing. 

Can you disagree with an artist but still love their work?

Michael Jackson was one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century. His music would have been a large part of many young adults’ childhoods. Jackson is one of the best-selling artists of all time. After the documentary Finding Neverland was released, his hits collection returned to the UK Top 40.

Finding Neverland detailed his posthumous child sexual abuse allegations, showing accounts from the now-adults in emotional interviews. Despite the allegations, people continue to love his music and cultural impact. Backlash to the documentary hasn’t dented the public admiration, and his legacy lives on.

The idea of separating the art from the artist has been around for a long, long time.

History of art is full of artists who have committed atrocities; from racist undertones to outright paedophilia. But, the idea that geniuses need to break the moral code to create, must be changed. There is a difference between unconventionality and criminality, and to excuse amorality is irresponsible and frankly dangerous. The historical context surrounding a piece is necessary to understand where the artist is coming from, and to separate one’s work from one’s person and history is to remove part of the art. 

Separating the art from the artist was a critical tool from the New Criticism theory, who sought to emphasize close reading, in order to appreciate literature as a self-contained object. Therefore, the quality of the piece was based on the scientific assessment of its language, rather than applying the social, political and historical conditions in which it was written. Divorcing the historical context from the piece allowed for the art to be treated as a lone subject, therefore analysed in terms of what was there. If the art couldn’t stand alone, it wasn’t good art.

Postmodernism theory argued a similar route: the author is dead. Thus, intentions and biographical details about the author should not be important in determining literary interpretation. The reader is the creator of a text, and for every new reader, a new meaning is created.

But is it useful to completely divorce the context? In terms of analysing a piece, not at all. You cannot pity Edward Scissorhands’ sorrow after hurting his girlfriend, and not think of Depp’s domestic abuse allegations (although the result of his trial is, of course, awaited). Oscar Wilde’s sensual descriptions of Dorian Gray have alarming echoes of his child ‘renters’. And knowing that JK Rowling’s dementors are based on depression gives a whole new meaning to the effect of the monsters, with Azkaban prisoners’ desperation to escape becoming even more emotive. It is important to acknowledge the art as pieces of their time and see beauty as well as the dark artistic influences.

As pleasure viewing, it is probably okay. Actions can be taken to ensure consumption of art does not support the artist if there is a moral disagreement with their personal lives. Things like buying books second hand, or lending movies rather than buying them new, can all support local businesses instead of the creator you no longer agree with.

Furthermore, for some pieces of art, there is a whole team to focus on. Edward Scissorhands can be appreciated for its soundtrack, the animation, and the other artists involved. Equally, Rowling’s books have been made more real by a fantastic team of directors, special effects, and the actors. Their contribution is important too.

Rowling’s books will never be the same, but the main characters and their messages will stay with us for life. For the people who have directly been impacted by an artist, through their words or actions, we can take some advice from Dumbledore, “Pity the living, and above all, all those who live without love.” Rowling may not love all her fans, but the characters she created do.

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