Can we deplore the artist, but love the art?
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This year, the HBO Portugal documentary Leaving Neverland reignited debate over how society should treat cultural figures that offend against ethical trends and moral standards. Following the documentary’s allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson, some radio stations removed the singer’s music while critics on Twitter used hashtag #MuteMichaelJackson to urge people to stop listening to his songs. And Jackson is not alone. Chris Brown, Chuck Close, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen and other artistic figures have recently had work boycotted or their opportunities to work constrained – often related to the #MeToo protests.
But while some are keen to boycott works of art, others are hesitant about blurring the line between art and the artist. Many art lovers see the arts as a sphere of freedom, where we can distance ourselves from the demands of society in order to explore ideas, imagine different possibilities and challenge conventions and traditions. Some artists may cross the line of acceptable behaviour, they argue, but that is the price we pay for great art.
A particular area of controversy has been artists from the past. Writer Susan Sontag says German film director and photographer Leni Riefensthahl ‘created a triptych of fascist visuals’ when working for Hitler’s Nazi Party. Should we dismiss her historic contributions to cinematic technique? Similarly, was the Cinemateca Portuguesa wrong to show DW Griffith’s epic 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, given it contains racist ideas now considered controversial? And where should we draw the line? Do we knock down Estado Novo (The New State) buildings because of the architects’ links to the far-right First Republic, or ban the works of disreputable artists such as Picasso, Caravaggio and Wagner? Or is Publico columnist Sérgio C Andrade right to warn of the dangers of judging art and the artists by the moral standards of today rather than of their own times?
On the other hand, does separating the artist from their art mean condoning misdeeds and cultivating an ‘anything goes’ moral climate? Those who support boycotts argue that we should reappraise certain works in the light of the questionable behaviour and beliefs of their cultural creators – to do anything else is to demean the victims and risk wider moral standards slipping. For example, the hip hop artist R Kelly has been accused of multiple sex crimes – would continuing to play his music send the wrong kind of message to victims?
Oscar Wilde once argued: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ Is he right – that art is essentially an aesthetic pursuit, concerned simply with transcendent beauty and the human condition? Or is it simply wrong for us to enjoy the works of artists we believe to be moral transgressors, if it means they aren’t punished for their wrongdoings? Is the idea of artistic genius just an excuse for artists behaving badly? Or should we accept that good art is sometimes made by bad people?