Cancelled: When art and artists shouldn’t be separated

Steve Roggenbuck was the first writer to make me believe that poetry can still change our world. Roggenbuck’s work, which incorporates the language of internet to explore personal politics and joy in the age of technology, felt vital in an artform often seen as exclusive and out-of-touch.

I shared and discussed Roggenbuck’s work constantly with my friends. We stood on tables and recited his work in the middle of college parties, incorporated his videos into school projects, and used his work to convert our poetry-suspicious friends to the art form.

One of the most enchanting things about Roggenbuck was how he didn’t just write his work — he lived it. When he felt like his work was being misunderstood by academics, Roggenbuck ditched his poetry MFA program at Columbia College Chicago to independently publish and promote his work. He lived as a drug-free vegan and toured relentlessly. Eventually, he found a way to do the impossible — to live off of poetry without compromising his vision.

When I drove five hours from Notre Dame to Oberlin College to see Roggenbuck perform, I was able to talk to him for ten minutes about the excitement and strangeness of being a poet in the Internet age. He read with an infectious joy — leading the audience in goofy but sincere chants for social justice.

In every way, it seemed that Steve was a writing, breathing representation of the mission established by his art — to incorporate your values into your lifestyle, and to inspire others by harnessing your passion for good.

On Oct. 2, that illusion was shattered. On Twitter, one woman came forward to identify Steve as a sexual predator. She posted a series of highly disturbing messages that Steve, then 24, had sent her when she was 16. From the messages, it is clear that Steve was not only soliciting her for sex, but also pressuring her to finance a secret trip where they could meet for that purpose.

Though Steve soon replied with an apology that admitted to the messages but claimed that the behavior was not “a habit,” many accounts of similar behavior surfaced in the wake of the first allegations. In the week that followed, the woman who published Roggenbuck’s messages reported that she had received more than twenty messages from others who were similarly pressured and abused by the poet as minors.

Roggenbuck’s admission to predatory behavior and the scope of his apparent abuse place him at the extreme end of cases. There’s really no question that Roggenbuck is guilty, or that his work — which trafficked in feminist ideas and language — is beyond salvaging in the light of the accusations. If anyone ever deserved to be “cancelled” as a public figure, it’s Roggenbuck.

I was devastated when I found out about Roggenbuck’s real character, but the clarity of his crimes made it easier. Though his work remains relatively unique, I can’t see a situation in which I’d want to read or share it again. When someone’s actions run counter to the persona their work presents, the beauty of the work is perverted and becomes disgusting.

The less clear-cut the situation, the harder it becomes to decide what to do. Many cases of accusations against artists become cases of he-said, she-said in which one party stands behind an accusation while the other denies it repeatedly. However, we must understand that when we continue to support artists who have been accused of sexual abuse, we place our own entertainment before respect for victims. That’s the sort of prioritization that no one can take pride in.

— John Darr


We as a society are not accustomed to the idea of stripping power from those who commit acts of sexual, physical, or emotional violence. These actions have been swept under the rug for practically the entire history of our civilized society.

If victims decide to report their abusers, our justice system does not treat allegations of abuse as a serious enough offense to warrant any sort of legitimate punishment. More often that not, victims who come forward with their stories are shamed, harassed, and murdered into silence. Punishing abusive individuals is something that our country as a whole needs to learn how to do, and it starts with us.

If artists did not directly benefit from people consuming their art, then it would be possible to separate the art from the artist. However, since the summation of an artist’s success relies on an audience consuming their work, “separating the art from the artist” is not applicable.

In the simplest of terms, you cannot consume art without directly supporting the person who created it. By consuming the art of an abuser, you are supporting an abuser. By ingesting their art, you are actively validating them — supporting them financially, increasing their platform, and ultimately giving them more power and invincibility.

Somebody’s identity as an abuser overpowers their identity as an artist. Artwork in the realm of abuse becomes insignificant. There is not a single piece of art out there that is more valuable than a victim’s trauma. No matter how groundbreaking, revolutionary, catchy, or beautiful it may be, it will never be more important than the pain the artist inflicted upon others. Art powered by manipulation — the deliberate infliction of pain onto others — is not worthy of being consumed.

In the information age, the art we have access to is virtually infinite. This world is overflowing with artists, musicians, cinematographers, and poets. There is other art to consume. There are other people to support.

Take pride in stripping power from those who do not deserve it. Take pride in supporting victims of abuse. Take pride in supporting artists with good intentions, integrity, and respect for others. It is the right side of the fight.

— Ella Dominguez