Separating the artist from the art’ in the age of social media


By Yasmin Donald (She/her)

In the age of social media, everything we publicly like, type, share or post is instantly archived. It can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection and a degree of inclination. Whether we are aware of it or not, our actions online allow strangers to form certain ideas about our character that in the absence of a media presence would simply be hearsay. It is this ‘online identity’ which complicates the notion of separating a creator from their work.

Most of the time, connecting an artist to their work is about attributing genius, or trying to connect with a person that made you feel heard. In this instance, your love for the creator is an extension of a love for their work. However, if this person maintains a strong online persona as an ‘artist’ we then attribute what Foucault calls an ‘author function’ to them; we read individual attributes as “authorial attributes”- the artist and the person are one in the same. This becomes problematic when we like the work of an artist, but the individual behaves in a way which is morally unacceptable, or perceived as controversial.    

Chris Brown, back in 2009, lost many fans after he was arrested for domestic violence against fellow singer Rihanna. Although never confirmed, global hit maker Michael Jackson also faced public animosity due to his sexual abuse allegations against children in 1993. One of the latest examples of an individual who has divided fans is writer, JK. Rowling, who has continually posted controversial tweets about the transgender community. The question is; Is it possible to enjoy the work, without supporting the actions of the artist? Is it possible to forget the author/ creator, as theorist Roland Barthes suggests?

With J.K. Rowling, this is an interesting question because her most notable work, the Harry Potter series, has become more than simply words on the page. They are movies, theme parks, merchandise, and even university courses. According to Durham University, the course is in place to “understand the reasons of Harry Potter’s popularity by putting it into a social, cultural, and educational context. It also studies the relevance of Harry Potter to the 21st Century education.” In this sense, we see the reality of Barthes’ theory “It is language which speaks, not the author.”

Whilst we can recognise that Harry Potter is bigger than the woman who penned the text, the reality remains that J.K Rowling’s role as an artist allows her as an individual to receive profits from anything Hogwarts related. In this sense, to some, buying Harry Potter is funding the individual J.K. Rowling, as well as her views (as they are an extension of her). This is a reason why many people no longer consider themselves fans; to buy Harry Potter is to support J.K. Rowling’s political ideologies.

Ultimately this question of whether we can separate the artist from the work comes back to the social media landscape and the notion of a ‘online persona’:  J.K. Rowling’s twitter bio, for example, is “writer sometimes known as Robert Galbraith”. Her online presence thus, makes it difficult to separate author from the individual. Her cover photo is also a picture of her latest book; suggesting that if you like her tweets (online persona) you might want to purchase the book (the product of her authorship) . In conclusion, in this social media landscape, there is less of a divide between the art and the artist, but it is still possible to separate the two. It is therefore up to you whether you make the distinction or not.