11 March 2019

Reconciling artistic pleasure with moral disgust

by Remfry Dedman

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My timeline and Twitter feed have been filled primarily with a subject that has caused bitter divisions and public arguments over the putative actions of a musical legend who died almost 10 years ago. I’m referring of course to Michael Jackson who is back in the news after yet more accusations of child abuse, hauntingly detailed in Leaving Neverland, a new 4-hour HBO documentary that aired over two nights on Channel 4 last week. The graphic accounts of Wade Robson and James Safechuck add more weight to the rhetoric that Jackson was not only the King of Pop, but also a closet paedophile and child molester, accusations that first emerged publicly back in 1993.

It goes without saying that the crimes depicted in the documentary are utterly vile and abhorrent. Some people, mainly die-hard Michael Jackson fans it has to be said, have condemned the documentary using pretty dubious arguments. I’m inclined to believe the testimonies in Leaving Neverland myself, although the purpose of this article is not specifically to condemn Jackson’s alleged actions further or lampoon the rabidly loyal fan base coming to his defence despite overwhelming evidence and recurring allegations. What I feel somewhat more qualified to discuss is the delicate but persistent post #metoo topic of what happens to an artist’s oeuvre once they have been accused of heinous crimes.

Since events came to light of former Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, a rift seems to have opened up between those who feel the need to boycott convicted (or accused) sexual deviants’ work and those who feel that art should be separated from artist. In light of Leaving Neverland, there are predictably calls to boycott Michael Jackson’s music as well. I can understand why radio stations around the world have decided to pull Jackson’s songs from their playlists. I support the decision by producers of The Simpsons to pull an episode featuring Jackson’s voice from circulation. I can even sympathise with the decision to pull down a statue of Jackson outside the National Football Museum in Manchester.

I cannot, however, get behind the rather worrying, Orwellian idea that Michael Jackson’s music should be boycotted altogether. I’ve seen arguments get out of hand and friendships falter on social media because people are offended at the idea that their friends and loved ones defiantly continue to listen to the work of a man who was very likely a serial paedophile. I understand how that could seem distasteful but just because you enjoy a person’s work does not mean you are complicit in their actions.

Returning to The Simpsons briefly, executive producer James L Brooks said of their decision to pull the Jackson episode “I’m against book-burning of any kind. But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.” If you’ll allow me to somewhat clumsily take Brooks’ metaphor and apply it to my own argument, disowning people for listening to music made by unsavoury characters is tantamount to ripping chapters out of someone else’s book. If one chooses to rip a chapter out of their own book, that is up to them, but renouncing those unwilling to rip out a chapter from their book is a form of forced censorship that makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. Bradbury taught us the perils of a society that burns books in the name of censorship in his brilliant 1953 future dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 but his rhetoric could have easily applied to any art form.

Some people find it extremely difficult to separate art from artist which is a perfectly acceptable position to take. But for others, it is possible to enjoy art made by people whose actions they denounce. I can enjoy Annie Hall whilst at the same time finding Woody Allen to be a very problematic person. But I’m also able to sympathise with those who can’t extrapolate the art from the artist. It all comes down to personal choice and in reality, there are two variables that dictate whether someone continues to devour a person’s work after troubling allegations have emerged; the nature and severity of the crime vs. the amount of enjoyment derived from that artist’s work.

The ugly truth is modern contemporary music is filled with a litany of, at best dubious, at worst calculated and predatory individuals. Still enjoy the work of David Bowie? Elvis Presley? Led Zeppelin? The Rolling Stones? Jerry Lee Lewis? Marvin Gaye? Red Hot Chili Peppers? Iggy Pop? R.Kelly? Ted Nugent? Chuck Berry? The Eagles? According to an article posted in January 2018 on All That’s Interesting, all these artists or members of these bands have engaged in sexual activity with minors under the age of consent. If those calling out to boycott Michael Jackson’s music are to be consistent, that’s a lot of chapters to rip out of their book. And this is just one crime out of the many indiscretions and moral dilemmas musicians have historically been involved with.

Whilst it may be uncomfortable to point out the indiscretions of artists that are loved by millions, I feel it is necessary. The first step to solving society’s problems, particularly ones that were once considered taboo, is to acknowledge them. Only then can you begin a civil discussion that will hopefully make progress towards solving them. Unfortunately, many of the conversations post #metoo seem to have been uncivil and accusatory, pointing fingers and insinuating that by enjoying an artist’s work is in some way tantamount to taking on their morals and integrity. This is patently ridiculous and needs to stop if real progress is to be made.  

After watching Leaving Neverland, I don’t personally think I’ll be listening to Jackson’s music any time soon, although I’ve yet to decide if the documentary will prevent me from listening to his music ever again. But if someone continued to derive pleasure from listening to his music, I would 100% defend their right to do so. 

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