What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster?
For many, after watching the four-hour documentary titled Finding Neverland, the answer is obvious. Michael Jackson’s guilt is presented with such powerful and harrowing tangibility. It’s clear that this is also evident to various radio stations around the world, as Jackson’s songs have been pulled from the air, but we are faced a question as individual consumers. Can we continue to listen to his music? Can we really separate the art from the artist?
Those who are familiar with literary theory will know that this question is not a new idea – it has existed in academia for quite some time. In his essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barnes argued against using the identity of the artist to interpret meaning from the work. The work, then, stands on its own merit, separate to those whom created it, free from a single, limited interpretation.
“It’s never just about the art”
Yet separating the man and the music is difficult when that man’s output amounts to a cultural phenomenon, his influence going way beyond music. This is what I believe to be the crux of the issue here: it’s never just about the art. What we do when we celebrate an artist often reinforces the myth of their life.
And this issue goes beyond Michael Jackson. It’s watching House of Cards and American Beauty even though we know Kevin Spacey is a sexual predator. It’s listening to ‘Ignition’ even though we know R Kelly is an sexual predator. It’s watching any Harvey Weinstein movie when we know it was produced by a sexual abuser. Admittedly, as a far more collaborative process the ethical waters are far murkier in film, but the point remains – art does not exist in a vacuum. The art and the artist are fully entwined.
Some might argue that we can continue to consume art as an example of how talent can be weaponised in the most appalling way, a cautionary tale of the danger of believing an artist automatically embodies goodness because we like their work. We could say also that there is no rationality to a work of art – you either like it or you don’t. You just have to decide if your emotional response to the art you love is stronger than your emotional response to the person the artist is. Yet the issue here isn’t whether or not the artist is monstrous, but whether or not this work of art makes you complicit in their monstrosity.
“Supporting their art supports their lifestyles”
The bottom line is it doesn’t matter how you think an artist is connected to their art, you can always refuse to give them your money. Supporting their art supports their lifestyles; it could allow them to continue and perpetuate their abuse. This is, of course, not the case with Jackson, but with the numerous sexual predators who are still alive.
Many are divided as to whether or not it is wrong to listen to R Kelly, whom, though not yet convicted, has been accused of sexually assaulting very young women and girls. But withdrawing support sends a message to those who have been silenced and shamed and overshadowed by the fame of their abusers that we value the lives of the victims over the perpetrators, that fame is not a shield to be used against any and all acts of wrongdoing. That their bravery in speaking up has not gone unnoticed. That these people should and will be held accountable.
Jackson is dead, we cannot convict him. Listening to his art that we have already bought provides him no monetary support, but by continuing to listen to him, we allow his voice to be stronger than those he abused. So, yes, you could still listen to Jackson, or you could listen to those whose lives he ruined instead.