Great art, bad artists
A haunting tale of child abuse and psychological damage, the spine-chilling documentary “Leaving Neverland” was broadcast by HBO in early March. Neverland, for my contemporaries, would never be equated with Peter Pan anymore after this film. Instead, it would remind us of Michael Jackson, the global superstar, timeless icon and phenomenal artist who, according to the film, was also a child abuser. And Neverland, his palatial dream house, was allegedly the scene of horrific assaults against children.
Michael is undoubtedly the supernova of all stars charged with sexual abuse. These are allegations that plagued him his entire life and followed his name even after his death. The #MeToo era we live in has magnified awareness of and catapulted protest against acts of sexual harassment allegedly committed by men in power—artists, creators and influencers, not just big names but also household names, beloved names.
- Kelly, for example, of “Ignition” and “I Believe I Can Fly” fame, was arrested last month for failing to provide child support. Before that, he was also indicted for sexual crimes against four women, some of whom were underage at the time of their contact with Kelly. As a result, artists such as Celine Dion and Lady Gaga have removed their collaborations with the artist from Spotify. The music streaming service also temporarily removed Kelly from its library. After his music was restored, a public outcry arose with the hashtag #MuteRKelly.
The once beloved Bill Cosby, whom millennials associate with Nickelodeon’s “Little Bill,” is serving a 10-year sentence for three counts of assault. The iconic and bespectacled Woody Allen, once ranked the third-greatest comedian in the world, is suing Amazon for refusing to release his 2017 film. Allen was accused of sexually abusing an adopted child in 1993, although the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic found no basis for the case.
The recent explosion into the open of these long-suppressed stories has shone a spotlight on how sexual assault can wreck futures, rob identities and tear families apart. It is a crime of unimaginable monstrosity, an offense against the victim and against society, and its perpetrators should be duly prosecuted and convicted under the law.
But when celebrated artists become the cast of characters, we also seem to become personally involved—as their consumers, their audiences and their fans. Should art be judged apart from their artists?
If yes, that would mean, in effect, that the artist did not have a personal investment in his art. That his output was not influenced by who he really is inside. The same internal constitution and dialogue that created his art must also be the same nature behind his offenses.
The opposite view, on the other hand, would mean discounting the countless artistic and scientific breakthroughs throughout history of artists and scientists who were also criminally flawed (or were considered criminals in the context of their time).
I think of myself and most other Filipinos whose tax returns do not consider us to be artists but professionals. As such, we are to be at our best behavior all the time, bound by our professional code of ethics and at risk of legally losing our licenses over even a small stain in our reputation. In this light, the profession is not apart from the professional. Shouldn’t the art not be apart from the artist as well?
Then there is the related, even more contentious matter of whether to censor an artwork due to its creator’s offenses. This is still a very gray area.
It’s all a difficult moral situation to dichotomize. I continue to enjoy Michael Jackson and will endlessly do so, but I honestly wouldn’t be able to watch a Cosby film again. Neither would I support an Allen accolade. I guess it is, in the end, a personal decision for everyone.
Poet D.H. Lawrence once said, “Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” Is that still true?
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