The documentary “Leaving Neverland” highlights an age-old conundrum
I haven’t seen the documentary yet. So no comments on its merits, artistically or in terms of assignment of guilt. I am a staunch believer in our justice system and the basic tenant of “innocent until proven guilty”. This post isn’t about who said what or who did what, nor about Michael Jackson specifically. As a survivor of sexual assault as a child by a grown-up, I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it either. Some things need not be remembered needlessly. But the discussions that have followed in the wake of its screening around the globe have led me to think about the topic as such, and how we, as consumers of art, can deal with instances when an artist we enjoy/love/adore turns out to be less perfect than we would like them to be.
Through history, artists have always been human…
Stating the obvious first. Artists (writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, filmmakers etc.) have always been humans. And as such, they’re all deeply flawed. Some even claim that it takes a highly flawed person to create great art. Wasn’t me, but I can see how that might be true. In order to create art that touches people emotionally, art that annoys, makes happy, saddens, etc., any artistic product must appeal to our emotions and in order to achieve that effect, whoever creates it, must be able to access deeply rooted feelings and emotions, good and bad.
I remember reading the works of Julius Caesar in school, in the original Latin. He was a brilliant writer, his storytelling unique, yet as a statesman, he was also quite ruthless and brutal. Hardly the ideal human being, and I remember our teacher telling us that we had to see his stories as what they were: a victor’s account of historical events. Hardly objective. And there are many instances through the eons of artists we may treasure, but who fell short on the human front. Here are a couple of my favorites: Richard Wagner, one of my favorite classical composers, yet an asshole (pardon my French) as a human being, not to mention an Anti-Semite of the worst kind. Knut Hamsun, one of my favorite Norwegian writers, brilliant stories. He even won a Nobel Prize, but yeah, he was a staunch supporter of the Nazis and German occupation of Norway. Fast forward to someone like Woody Allen, and the many movies of his I adore, particularly “What you always wanted to know…” but on a human front? Yeah. Then there are Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R Kelly, Kevin Spacey and countless others. And we’ve already mentioned the King of Pop whose musical legacy is astonishing, but who leaves many wondering: can I still listen to his music after these allegations?
Boycott or no boycott?
In the wake of the Jackson documentary, several radio stations have stopped playing his music. That is, of course, their prerogative. However, I’m not sure that is the right way to go because it derives us, the audience of the possibility to come to that determination on our own. If I am disgusted by the allegations, I should be able to come to that conclusion on my own and change the station or turn it off. However, if I want to continue to listen, I should be allowed to do so as well.
I don’t like it very much when other people make decisions on my behalf, but that’s just me. If I don’t want to attend a concert by an artist because they’ve been accused of something horrific, that should be my choice, and the same should be true for reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie.
I have one caveat though: be open-minded, and educate yourself. Often enough it is very difficult to assess whether someone really is a bad person, or not. And posthumously? There is no defense possible, and in the case of Michael Jackson, there are no criminal convictions. Which isn’t to say he didn’t do it. Legally, though, and that is our common framework, he’s to be seen as innocent. And that is true for most artists, particularly deceased ones. They can no longer defend themselves, or explain their thoughts or why (or why not) they chose to do this or believe that.
My personal principles with regards to artists
I try to tackle this with a two-pronged approach: a) separate artist from the person and b) don’t be a putz! Educate yourself.
I will always love Wagner’s music, even though I know he was a racist and Anti-Semite. How do I reconcile the two? I have always maintained that the art, the work, is more important than the artist. It is separate from them and should be judged on its own merits. Allow me a short excursion into HR, where many organizations these days use anonymized resumes to make sure applicants have an equal opportunity. We know that hiring managers will sort people by name, gender, race etc. long before digging into the actual competencies of someone. Remove that information and they will be forced to view the actual competencies without knowing if it is a man/woman, someone white/black/Asian, etc. who’s behind a resume.
If you heard pieces from e.g. the Ring without knowing who wrote the score, would you deem it less valuable? As a writer, this is particularly important to me, as I find my works should be judged as they are, not based on who I am. Having studied literature in college, I know that we tend to look to the author’s life to explain this or that in their writing. I’ve always found this rather “offensive”, particularly since I’ve begun to write myself. Yes, I may find inspiration for my writing in my life (duh!) but the end result is never a reflection of me, never something that can be used as a basis for psychoanalysis of me and those near me. I’ve written about this in the past.
It’s easier said than done not to be a putz when it comes to our darlings. We tend to see our idols through stars in our eyes. That is quite normal. And even if you feel that your idol has been falsely accused, and you feel strongly about that, which is fine as long as they have not been convicted in a court of law, educate yourself about the crime/behavior they have been accused of. Not the specific case, but learn about e.g. sexual assault, and how frequent it is, who the victims are, the perpetrators, circumstances it happens and the powerplay involved. Learn about child abuse, the causes, and who victims and predators normally are.
Let’s face it, you can’t really judge anyone unless you know a hell of a lot more about the alleged crime. Just because someone sings a lovely song, writes a great book or is an incredibly talented actor says absolutely nothing about their potential lives. Nothing.
I can listen to Michael Jackson, at least the songs I like and will continue to do so. However, if he were still alive, I’d not allow my son to spend time near him. Ever. Better to be safe than sorry. I can still watch a movie by Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allan, but I wouldn’t have coffee with them. I can still enjoy a novel by Knut Hamsun, but I’m mindful of his views expressed, and I look forward to “The Valkyries” at my opera house this fall, and to learning more about Wagner’s life and the despicable views held by him, his late wife Cosima and many in his family for generations, still infecting the Bayreuth festival every year.
That’s my take on it. What is yours?
We are three days away from the launch of my next book in the Golden One series, Deceit. And while I’m far from being a perfect human being, the worst I’ve done is getting speeding tickets and running a stop sign. LOL So don’t judge me too harshly. But more importantly, judge my books on their own merits, not by what you think of me, my views or my actions. You can learn more about Deceit right here, complete with purchase links to get your own copy.