Can we deplore the artist but love the art?
This year, Channel 4’s controversial 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, the singer’s music disappeared from the airwaves. But Jackson isn’t the only major cultural figure to be side-lined or criticised in this way in recent years. Kevin Spacey, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Chris Brown and other artistic figures have had their work boycotted as a result of their actions.
But while some have been keen to boycott works of art, others have been 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. And what about artists from the past? If we refuse the art of Jackson because of his personal deeds, why stop with him? Should we ban the works of Picasso, Caravaggio, Richard Wagner or Eric Gill, too?
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 his alleged victims and, indeed, any victims of sexual abuse?
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 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?