What Should We Do About Scandalous Artists? By A. Kirsch
I sometimes find it difficult to re-watch a movie with an actor in it who I have since discovered is rude, arrogant, abusive, or some kind of jerk, in real life.
Ditto with singers. Now that the “Leaving Neverland” documentary has been released, I find myself a little reluctant to listen to pop songs by Michael Jackson anymore.
It’s sometimes hard to know how, when, or if to stop supporting an artist when one discovers said artist is a dirt bag in his or her personal life.
(Link): What Should We Do About Scandalous Artists? By Adam Kirsch
January 24, 2019
… Should we give honor and respect to people who excel in their art but are deficient in what we consider ordinary morality?
These questions have been at the heart of modern thinking about art since the 19th century; but since the advent of the #MeToo movement, they have begun to receive new kinds of answers.
Of course, it isn’t just people in the arts – singers, painters, actors, writers – whose behavior has come under increased scrutiny. But wrongdoing by artists provokes a different kind of reaction than wrongdoing by financiers or politicians. We don’t fee intimate with the latter the way we do the former, or reward them with the same kind of love.
For many people, refusing to listen to R. Kelly [a singer who has been credibly accused of sexually abusing many women, some of whom are teens] would mean losing a source of deep pleasure – and, as the “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary showed, a lot of listeners resisted acknowledging the accusations against him for just that reason.
One way of addressing the problem of what to do with art made by people we find objectionable is to draw a sharp line between creator and creation.
After all, in most areas of life, we don’t think it is our responsibility to pass judgement on the makers of things we enjoy benefit from: You don’t have to admire Steve Job’s sometimes volcanic management style to use an iPhone. Perhaps a song or a book or a painting is like a phone or a refrigerator: something to be valued for the pleasure and utility it gives, regardless of who made it or why.
…. people are naturally reluctant to patronize artists they despise, no matter how good at their art they may be. Another way of putting it is that the dead are beyond punishment, while the living can still be forced to requite their sins.
But making a clear distinction between the artist and the art is perhaps too convenient for us, the audience. [The author cites the example of Ezra Pound]
…. Today, the transgressions that threaten the careers and reputations of living artists are less often political than personal. But perhaps there is less difference here than meets the eye, for it is not sexual activity per se that earns obloquy today. It is the alleged abuse of the power conferred by fame, wealth, age, and gender.
The classic case of an artist brought low by his sexual behavior is Oscar Wilde, who in 1895 was sentenced to two years in prison for being gay. At the time, right-thinking people believed that this sentence was just: An artist should not be exempt from fundamental moral laws. Today, right-thinking people know that it wasn’t: It was the law that persecuted Wilde that was immoral, not his sexuality.
Yet as the English critic Kate Hext recently wrote in an essay in the Times Literary Supplement, the truth is that if Oscar Wilde’s case were being tried today, he might once again be widely scorned – not because the prostitutes he patronized were male, but because they were young, poor, and powerless.
The hostile gossip that surrounded him at the time, Ms. Hext writes, “would be nothing compared to the long lenses and comments section of Daily Mail Online, or they verdicts of social media.”
This kind of judgment represents a reversal of the modern myths that legitimized and glamorized the transgressive behavior of artists – which almost always meant male artists, since the modern idea of genius has been largely constructed around men and masculinity. …
Since the 19th century, there has been great power in the idea that the artist is a bohemian and a subversive, someone who is supposed to test the limits of convention. [The author cites the example of poet Lord Byron]
Modern art was deeply informed by the idea that creativity is connected with transgression.
… The critic Lionel Trilling wrote that the great monuments of modern art are “not static and commemorative but mobile and aggressive,” suggesting that the most important question to ask about them is “how much damage they can do.”
All this meant that male artists who fell afoul of public morals were, if anything, more likely to be regarded as heroes by their admirers. [The author here cites the example of painter Egon Schiele, whose work was quite erotic]
The license given to such artists wasn’t necessarily thought of as a privilege…
Rather, it was the indulgence demanded by vulnerability: An artist was at the mercy of internal forces that he couldn’t always master but that he needed to produce his work.
… [Greek mythological warrior] Philoctetes, [Edmund] Wilson [American literary critic] wrote, is a symbol of the artist, suggesting that “genius and disease… may be inextricably bound up together.”
If this indulgence of the diseased character of the artist is now being revoked, it is partly because artists no longer seem like marginal or vulnerable figures in our society.
Not only are famous artists wealthy, influential and privileged; art itself now looks more like an instrument of power than a protest against it. Right and left alike have learned from Marxist theorists like Antonio Gramsci and Theodor Adorno that art and culture can be powerful tools of ideological influence.
… much criticism today, especially online and on social media, consists of exposing the ideological implications of works of art for the benefit of unwary consumers.
….In the 20th century, this way of thinking about art [i.e, art can negatively influence people etc] was largely abandoned, as governments and churches renounced the right to censor. To worry about the moral effects of art and music came to be seen as crankish….
But now the pendulum has begun to swing the other way. When artists are accused of wrongdoing, it is tempting to find their alleged malignity reflected in their art….
…. the new moralism of the left converges with the old moralism of the right: Art is seen as irresponsible and potentially subversive, and therefore in need of social control.
But the impulse to control art and artists is actually a greater tribute to their power than laissez-faire toleration, which sees them as essentially incapable of doing harm….