I believe I can … separate the art from the artist – the curious case of R-Kelly
R-Kelly is a burdened man. His demise is both Shakespearean and pathetic in it’s imagery, as he takes on a skeptical world to clear his besmirched name.
But, can you still listen to his music? Should, perhaps, is a better word. Should we still be able to derive enjoyment from artists against whom we harbor moral judgments? Okay, forget R-Kelly (as he pleads), what about the king of pop? We can no longer stay in Neverland now, right?
When the accusation itself compels a celebrity to pre-emptively defend their name, proven offenders in the entertainment industry face the impossible task of absolving their body of work of their wrongdoing.
As well as posing a challenge for the industry, there is something unnerving about hoping your childhood idol doesn’t transpire to be anything less than the hero we imagine. People worship at the alter of MJ.
I remember how ashamed my physics teacher felt after Jimmy Savile featured in his ‘my inspiration’ school assembly. Perhaps we need a better class of role model. Whilst nobody slept with Harvey Weinstein posters sprawled over their bedroom walls, Spacey, Cosby and Louis C.K. are cultural icons with deeply invested fans.
Herein lies the problem. The allegations of dozens of women sedated by Quaalude and raped by Cosby reduce our estimation of him as a man, but does it affect the storytelling genius of 49; his 1987 wistful witty ode to ageing and life?
Does Kevin Spacey become a less convincing Lester Burnham in American Beauty? I couldn’t imagine watching John Doe’s gleeful depravity in Se7en could be more disturbing.
Perhaps we ought to selectively review editions of 60 minutes without Mike Wallace, no matter how useful the exchange. What of the filmographies of Nate Parker, Roman Polanski, Bernardo Bertolucci and Woody Allen?
This issue plagues all forms of art bound by the fallibility of the artist. Kenneth Halliwell, whose works were on display at Tate Britain last year, bludgeoned to death Joe Orton, his playwright partner.
Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre was acquitted of the murder of wife and fellow artist Ana Mendieta. The ambiguous case compelled waves of protests questioning the separation between his work and personal biography. The BBC’s Fisun Güner adds Eric Gill and known murderer (and rumoured pederast) Caravaggio to this problematic list.
It infects even our most celebrated musicians’ masterpieces. Is Wagner’s Ring cycle tarnished by his anti-semitism? Will you watch your children practice Michael Jackson’s dance moves? In which of Picasso’s canvases can one detect the markings of a misogynist?
In seeking to fix our miscalibrated moral compasses — a highly subjective challenge (see this exchange between Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert) — I propose an assistive measure.
When the abuse violates an essential feature of the individual’s expression, their body of work is essentially compromised. When the abuse isn’t essential to their craft (called accidental in Aristotelian vernacular), that is to say it has no necessary bearing on the content of their expression, the reader can still conceivably enjoy their work.
Let me explain. Sexual perversion is an essential part of Louis C.K.’s comedy, and the components of his abuse originate from a consistent vein of content. From a benign violation theory perspective, he is too intimately associated with his jokes to walk away from the backlash, irrespective of his comedic deft. Louis concedes how foundational his personal tendencies are, quite overtly denying his line between art and artist.
Imagine how removed these issues would be for ‘nice-guy’ comedians like Jerry Seinfeld or And and Dec. All students of comedy must pay academic reverence to Louis C.K’s mind, but for many it’s a formality at this point .
So with Louis, “there’s a lot to unpack.” he cannot be perceived without his flaws, so he’ll simply carry them over to the next page of his career.
With Kevin Spacey, it’s different. His decades of characters don’t correspond with his personality; Spacey’s diverse skillset helps him to morph effortlessly to the rhythm of the storyteller’s pen.
Aristotle mused that every existing thing possesses one of two types of qualities; essential and accidental. The quality of being unmarried is ‘essential’ to being a bachelor, one cannot categorise a married man as a bachelor (no matter how strongly he protests otherwise). The colour of the bachelor’s hair however, is not ‘essential’ to his being unmarried and is ‘accidental’ to his state. This inspired Christian (see Aquinas) and Muslim (see Mulla Sadra) philosophers’ literature.
Spacey’s abuse is ‘accidental’. It’s a quality and feature of his personhood for sure, but it’s not essentially linked to his art. Sure he’s wrestled with the themes of his downfall — his sexual eccentricity in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the unashamed sexual corruption of youth in American Beauty — but it’s too tenuous to identify the discernible part of Spacey’s own character within his performances, or simplify his talent as predatory sexual repression, there is talent there also.
If you are no longer convinced by Spacey’s characters’ sincerity that’s from knowledge added to the screen, not from the substance of the performance itself.
This is a crucial distinction, because when an individual of greater consequence is pulled down from grace, we will have to consider more imminent concepts than entertainment and privilege. Current affairs springs to mind here.
Former NBC newsman Brian Williams’ fateful lie about his Iraq helicopter crash essentially corrupts his truth-telling capability. The assurance of honest discourse ranks too highly in our expectation of journalists to forgive such mistrust. Williams’ past is compromised, his reporting seems disingenuous and his rehabilitation unjustified.
Fox News’ face of conservatism Bill O’Reilly couldn’t spend five nights a week moralising America with allegations of sexual misconduct sticking to his suit. For our truth-tellers, honestly is essential. Matt Lauer and Mike Wallace cannot be appreciated when such grave possibilities remains. Needless to say, this dismounts politicians and religious leaders more violently, they require extraordinary talent to be perceived separate to their commitment to truth — see Martin Luther King Jr, the orator.
Judging what is being said before who is saying it is a worthy and often intellectually challenging endeavour in public life. But it’s important. Analysing the significance of new information is better than stretching our understanding of right and wrong to facilitate the worst from among us. Don’t just forgive R-Kelly because you like his songs.
Either we accept our fallen heros with their unwavering warts or we suspend moral judgment when consuming information. Or, I daresay, we keep searching the cornucopia of human history for infallibility. We might just find it.
By Abbas Farshori