In April, a new art exhibit was installed in the grand front window of the Columbia College Chicago student center. The first time I walked past it, I noticed large stacked cardboard cutouts of album and book covers, movie and television posters, paintings and advertisements — many of which I not only recognized, but loved.
Featured artworks included the Harry Potter series, the books that taught me to love reading. I saw Frida Kahlo, the painter who taught me to love art.
But after taking a closer look at the installation, which is now on display at Hokin Gallery, my excitement turned to shame. On the back of each cutout was a reason the artist had been canceled.
J.K. Rowling, author of “Harry Potter,” has made controversial comments about transgender people. Kahlo has been accused of cultural appropriation.
The message I got was to leave the art behind and not look back.
This installation “Does the Art Excuse the Accused?” was curated by 2020 Columbia alum Madison Pope. It showcases the creations of artists who have been exposed for hateful or harmful behavior, along with comments, crowd-sourced via an online survey, from (mostly former) consumers of these artworks.
“The whole reason we put out the survey is because we want to know who people are talking about … [and which artists] come to their attention right away when we ask these questions,” Pope told me.
Pope doesn’t advocate for cancel culture or deplatforming artists financially. But this sentiment is far from universal. In our polarizing times, we are too quick to cancel artwork without carefully considering what that means.
I still consume plenty of problematic media. I do not do it unconsciously. When I walked into that exhibition and saw some of my favorite books, movies, and albums, I was not surprised by any of the allegations.
All of the harmful actions committed by artists whose work I adore I find reprehensible and do not condone in any way. I’ve spent a lot of time considering the exhibit’s titular question.
“I think it is very rare that we can’t separate an art and an artist,” Jim DeRogatis, associate professor of instruction at Columbia and music critic, told me.
DeRogatis, who was the first journalist to bring musician and recently convicted sex offender R. Kelly’s crimes to light for the Chicago Sun-Times, believes the only instance in which the art and artist cannot separated is when the art itself is centered around the artist’s “misdeeds.” DeRogatis considers Kelly one of these artists.
“It’s a different situation,” he said. “And it’s rare, thankfully.”
DeRogatis believes everyone is entitled to decide whether or not they can separate the art from the artist, and that there are no right or wrong answers.
Here’s my answer: There are some “problematic” works of art that, no matter how hard I tried, I don’t think I could ever divorce from the person I am today.
But I agree with DeRogatis when he says this: “Art is a reason for living. And [if you say], ‘I just want to be entertained’ … you’re not a very good citizen, you’re not living in the world.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wit and mastery of the short story shaped the way I write. (Fitzgerald allegedly took ideas and writings from his wife, Zelda, without giving her credit.) “American Beauty,” starring Kevin Spacey, completely changed my outlook on life for the better.
It’s too late for me to cut the art out of my life, even if I stopped being an active consumer.
Sofia Felino is a senior at Columbia College Chicago majoring in creative writing and screenwriting and the co-director of photography for the Columbia Chronicle.
NOTE: An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly listed Jim DeRogatis’ title. He is an associate professor of instruction at Columbia.