Opinion: When You Hate the Artist But Love Their Art

Helen Wu ’19

Should I admire the work of an artist who has a history of mistreating women? Reading multiple headlines alleging that Junot Díaz had a systemic pattern of sexual misconduct towards many women in his life launched me into a process of reckoning with the art I consume. Very often, I am willing to excuse the problematic undertones or language of other authors I read because they lived in an era without the modern understanding of social justice that our generation believes in. I couldn’t, however, fathom that a living author like Junot Díaz, who I revered so greatly, could commit such crimes against women. Faced with the situation, I pitted the value of his art against his morals. Should I boycott his books because of his deplorable personality, or should I continue reading them for their literary merit?

We, as modern consumers of art, have to consider this question more often than we realize. One prominent example is American rapper XXXTentacion, whose homophobic attitude and domestic abuse of his girlfriend  have been publicized in the media. Despite these damning reports, many of his songs still populate the Top 50 charts six months after his death. To me, this is a clear sign that many of us have chosen to prize his musical merit over his actions. However, there are good reasons for his cult following—X’s messages about mental health issues and the vulnerable tone in his music appeal to many younger listeners with similar struggles. In his case, I am forgiving of X and do not feel the need to boycott his music because I believe that his music does not reflect his hateful and problematic attitudes toward marginalized groups. Instead, he intends to use his fame and influence to provide support and spread love with his work. Quoting a line from the official music video of his song “SAD!”,  “the world is in need of change, humans must learn to love and compromise rather than destroy.”

I am not as forgiving of Junot Díaz. In his famous novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, Díaz condemns toxic Dominican masculinity. As if he were exempt from the issue, Díaz portrays Dominican masculinity in a way that suggests his superiority over other people who perpetrate the harmful culture due to his ability to recognize the problem. When Díaz was accused of sexual misconduct amidst the #MeToo movement, he denied the severity of his actions, justifying his decisions as a result of his Dominican upbringing. To me, there was a clear conflict in his morals and the intentions of his novel. I found it weirdly hypocritical for anyone to write a novel condemning a culturally pervasive attitude that they personally embodied and perpetrated. This new information about Díaz has entirely altered my understanding of his literature as a challenge to the problematic status quo in his Dominican upbringing and has thus diminished my appreciation for it.

There is no clear cut answer to how we should respond or appreciate an artist’s work based off their personal life or morals. As showcased above, it can even vary between situations. However, as consumers of culture, we have the obligation to ourselves and the greater society to be wary of the context and use our agency to make informed decisions. While I do not think it is wise to criticize and deny the merits of art and literature published in another era with our modern understanding of social justice, it is equally as dangerous to serve as passive consumers or supporters of problematic artists who undermine the rights of other people.