A Note From The Editor
It’s hard to argue that Michael Jackson’s music isn’t amazing. But if you saw the documentary Leaving Neverland (or have even googled “Michael Jackson” in the last few years), you know that, at the very least, the singer had problematic relationships with children – and likely was a pedophile who abused multiple kids. Yet: his songwriting and talents as a performer are undeniable – as are his influence over pop music, performance art and global culture.
Michael Jackson fans, however, face a confounding dilemma: Is it wrong to listen to Jackson’s music? If Jackson was indeed a bad person (or did some truly terrible things to children) … does that “taint” his art?
Let's Dive In
The Deep: Questions started circulating about R&B singer R. Kelly in 1994, when he married his 15-year-old protégé, Aaliyah (she lied and said she was 18 on the paperwork; a few months later, their marriage was annulled).
The Deep: The questions grew over the course of the next 3 decades as multiple lawsuits were filed, sex tapes went public, and exposés were published about the singer’s inappropriate behavior. Each suggested that R. Kelly was sexually/emotionally abusing women and girls, some as young as 14.
John Doe: Ugh, I watched the documentary. Hard to believe some of his fans are still defending him.
D: But today’s conversation isn’t about those fans (the ones who believe Kelly did nothing wrong).
JD: It’s not?
D: Nope. It’s about the people who did believe Kelly was mistreating girls and young women … and still continued to listen to his music.
D: The question is: Did these people have a moral obligation to stop listening to his music?
JD: That’s a tricky one. Well, it’s true that terrible people sometimes do produce great art.
D: Right. The question is really: is that art important and inspiring enough to transcend the artist’s abhorrent behavior?
JD: I like “Remix to Ignition” as much as the next person … but I’m not sure it exactly qualifies as transcendent art.
D: Touché. But there are many legendary artists whose work presents the same conundrum. For example:
D: Take director Roman Polanski, who made acclaimed films such as The Pianist and Chinatown … and also admitted that he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl. Also: renowned classical composer Richard Wagner (who was a vehement anti-Semite) and Pablo Picasso (who apparently mistreated women).
JD: Hmmm, that’s a little trickier.
JD: My initial thought: If the artist is dead (as is the case with Pablo Picasso or Richard Wagner), it’s easier to justify consuming their art because you can’t hold them accountable anymore. Also: you aren’t directly supporting them with your dollars.
D: Great point. For artists that are alive, however, it’s a bit more problematic.
D: Take, for instance, Johnny Depp, who was accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wife, Amber Heard. Should you boycott his movies? Keep in mind that if you boycott his films, you’re also revoking support for the hundreds of other people who worked on those movies.
JD: That’s an interesting point. An “ensemble” piece of art is more complicated.
JD: Another issue: What if you already own the artist’s work? For example: Say I bought some Michael Jackson records in the 1990s, before he was accused of inappropriate behavior. Is it wrong if I listen to the records I already own – as long as I don’t spend any more money on his work?
D: It’s a great question. And on a related note: should you boycott an artist’s work if it’s performed by other artists?
D: Imagine, for instance, that you’re a season ticket holder of the L.A. Philharmonic. This weekend, they’re putting on a symphony of Richard Wagner’s work. Should you refuse to go to that show (or revoke your membership), since they're playing music made by an anti-Semite? Or can you enjoy the work of a great composer, even if you find some of their personal opinions repulsive?
JD: Actually, I was in a store a few months ago when I heard an R. Kelly song come on over the loudspeaker. Should I have left and shopped elsewhere? Complained to the store manager? … Or just gone about my shopping?
D: Some people would argue that you had a moral obligation to do something. These people say it’s naive to think we can separate the art from the artist – and believe we have an ethical obligation to denounce/boycott the work of artists who’ve violated basic moral principles.
JD: Make sense. Like, if I listen to Michael Jackson all day, every day, despite knowing what he did to young kids … isn’t that just kind of “overlooking” his terrible behavior?
D: Totally. On the other hand, some people argue that we can – and should – try to separate the art from the artist. They say there’s no conflict in condemning an artist’s abhorrent views/actions, while still appreciating the genius of their work. They believe that censoring an artist’s work only deprives the world of important knowledge, perspective and insight.
JD: That also makes sense. If we think that Picasso was a bad guy, for example, should we stop art students from studying his work, despite the fact that they might learn a lot from it (or be deeply inspired/influenced by it)?
JD: At the end of the day, I guess the question is: Does an artist’s behavior take away from the greatness of their work? For example, is Michael Jackson’s music less great because he was a pedophile?
D: Or as philosopher Erich Hatala Matthes puts it: just because Hitler was a morally abhorrent person, does that mean Hitler’s paintings are morally abhorrent?
Can you separate the art from the artist?
P.S.: Interested in this topic? Check out this article by Air Mail.