The Art and the Artist
When I was nine years old, I fell in love with Michael Jackson’s music.
From the moment my mom played “Man in the Mirror” in our kitchen, I was hooked. I was hooked on his music, I was hooked on how he told stories through his music videos, and I was hooked on the message of acceptance that emanated from every work he produced. As I got older, I learned that Jackson had been tried and acquitted of multiple counts of child molestation in his lifetime. I wanted to believe he was innocent, as did many other people. Until recently, I was able to continue to love him and his music blindly.
The documentary Leaving Neverland follows the lives of two boys whom Jackson sexually abused as children. After watching this, there was not a trace of doubt in my mind that these two men were telling the truth and were permanently traumatized. All of a sudden, there was something completely new to reckon with when I thought about Michael Jackson. I love his music. It makes me feel nostalgic and happy, and those are real feelings I can’t stop feeling.
But now, whenever I think about him or hear his music on the radio, I feel a deep disgust, a moral outrage. These are real feelings I can’t stop feeling either. My Michael Jackson dilemma is one that is repeated by an abundance of other people throughout time and especially so in the era of #MeToo. Over and over again, we learn the people who created the art we love are accused of monstrous acts. The art could be R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix),” Harvey Weinstein’s production of Good Will Hunting, Johnny Depp’s performance in Edward Scissorhands, or even Bill Cosby’s titular role on The Cosby Show. But at heart, the dilemma is the same: What do I do with art I love that was created by a monster?
A common answer to these questions is repeated so often it has come to seem as though it is an inescapable truth: you must separate the art from the artist. The intention of this school of thought is directed towards literary analysis in an effort to elevate literature from an art to a science. To do so, critics created the idea that a work of art must stand on its own.
But this idea is not self-evident truth and cannot be applied blindly; it is an academic idea that is popular as a tool for analyzing poetry and has since evolved in several directions. It’s one possible way of thinking about art, but not the only one. Others argue the artist is not in charge of the interpretation of their work because the artist is “dead” after the initial act of creation. It is the consumer, who reads, listens to, or beholds artwork, who creates it. If we don’t allow the authors, artists, actors, or directors the power to dictate how we interpret their art, then they don’t get to control anything about their industry or their legacy.
The issue here also extends past the dilemma: “Is this artist immoral?” but should bring up the question “Is this work of art asking me to be complicit with this artist’s immorality?” It’s the same argument which has come up often with R. Kelly, who writes songs about sex and age-differences but was accused of sexually assaulting young women. I would not want to send the message to him or to anyone else, that by listening to his music, I am complicit in his actions. If I conclude a piece of art is asking me to support a worldview I disagree with, I might decide my duty as a consumer is to turn my attention elsewhere.
Personally, I don’t really think any of us are able to take our own feelings about any artwork away from our impression of it. We’re necessarily engaged in a back and forth. Nor do I think it’s useful to isolate a work from the situation in which it was created and from the person who created it. To forget the historical and social context of a piece of artwork is to forget the seriousness of whatever consequence came with it.
I don’t have satisfying answers to any of the questions I’ve brought up here. I can’t tell you how you should feel about your favorite piece of art that was made by someone accused of doing terrible things. At the end of the day, a work of art that speaks to you is a work of art that speaks to you. In my case, I ended up more or less where I started: I can’t reverse my fondness for Michael Jackson’s music, and I can’t set aside my disgust for his actions. Right now, my emotional reaction to the words of Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, the two men who shared their stories of abuse in Leaving Neverland, is much stronger than my love of Michael Jackson’s music.