Separating the Art from the Artist

I discovered Junot Díaz on of all places YouTube. It was by coincidence, but after that he quickly became one of my favourite authors. His self-awareness, the joy he took in his nerdiness, and his literary prowess were refreshing.

The Pulitzer-prize winning author took on even greater significance for me when less than a month ago he wrote a harrowing essay on his abuse as a child, and tracks the impact of that on his life. 

But the story doesn’t end there, because soon after the article was released, women came out to declare the victim to also be an abuser. As I get older, I try to have more empathy and understand the ways we fail one another.

The complexity of being human, that we are mix of both good and bad. Today, I am struggling to have empathy for Junot Díaz, and to reconcile the art and the artist. The representation of the man, and his revealed true self. 

In a literary landscape where representation of non-white authors is limited, there are renewed questions about whether we can or should separate the author’s misconduct from his writing, especially when that author represents so much for a community often marginalised from these spheres.

The stories Junot tells are important, and their reception in the mainstream is equally significant. Should we make him pay for his flaws by “canceling” him, despite his talent, and representation?

I have no idea yet if this is the appropriate response. How we negotiate the two can be quite complex, particularly if it’s an author (artist) we are so invested in. What is wrong with Junot is, in fact, the same wrong of every artist: that they are real people. And when they’re real, when they’re out in the real world and doing real things then they are prone to remind us of their shortcomings and failings.

Nevertheless what I know now alters a lot about how I interpret his work.

Not coincidentally, artists aren’t the only ones who fail us, not too long ago H&M released an image featuring a young black boy modelling a green hoodie with “coolest monkey in the jungle” written on it.

The backlash against the racist image was swift, and a boycott was called for, though the follow through on this is doubtful. In South Africa, an H&M store was vandalised, though this being the right response is questionable. 

The same way we think about holding businesses accountable through boycotts or otherwise, we also need to be asking where our entertainment is coming from.

Sure, there’s an argument to be made against losing great art in the process, and in my case losing a literary hero, but when you consider the alternative—the continued victimization of women or marginalised communities—the argument holds no weight because the human stakes are too high.

For too long I’ve allowed myself to make excuses of separating the art from the artist. But then is supporting an artist’s work that different from endorsing their actions? What won’t I stand for? Where do I draw the line?

There is no perfect formula for this, but I’m learning. I cannot compartmentalize the values I believe in, no matter how good or “important” Junot Díaz’s work is to me. I’m investing my time and resources in flourishing female authors.


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