Michelangelo Caravaggio Self Portrait. Image from Wikimedia Commons
Should we separate artworks from the artists who made them and ignore the artists' ethics, even though they might have been sexist or racist or abusive people in their private life?
It is an interesting question, which has been widely debated from different perspectives. What triggered it for me was Naomi Campbell posting on Instagram a video clip of her music video with Michael Jackson, directed by Herb Ritts, with the caption "We miss you #legend". Miss Campbell has been careful to never comment on Jackson's alleged paedophilia. She never severed her friendship, on the contrary. As far as she is concerned, the making and screening of Leaving Neverland, the explosive documentary which details the sexual abuse to which Jackson subjected the (then) children who worked closely with him, never even happened.
I do not personally think that Michael Jackson was a genius, nor a legend and I would barely regard his work as art, even though his music played a major part in defining the popular culture of the 1980s and early 1990s. Nor do I particularly care for Miss Campbell's opinions.
We have recently had a Naomi Campbell overload in the news and her philanthropy has been rammed down our throats. I shall gladly leave her to her commendable humanitarianism, I am not going to discuss her at all in this post, her actions have been, as I said, just a trigger. Another person who never believed in Jackson's paedophilia and strongly defended him is none other than Donald Trump, who also calls himself "an ardent philanthropist". Naomi Campbell is definitely in excellent company.
Oprah on Leaving NeverlandBut I am digressing. The idea that people should dissociate themselves from Jackson's music is intriguing. It is definitely not a straightforward matter. Again, I was never a great fan, so I can live with a radio/TV ban on his music - apparently in place in New Zealand, following the paedophilia allegations. I never owned one of Jackson's albums, I preferred other musicians. But what of it?
Let's look at other instances. Woody Allen, for example. It was never proven, but there were allegations of sexual abuse in connection with one of his adopted daughters. I confess I like his films, even though when I now think of him, the idea of his abuse puts me off. Roman Polanski too was involved in a 'relationship' with a barely teen girl, legally only a child. In his case, the fact that his wife was butchered by the Manson family is often seen as warranting leniency for his 'unorthodox behaviour'. For me that's no excuse, sex with a minor, regardless of issues of consent, is still a crime. A responsible adult should know better than engaging in sexual behaviour with any child.
Anti-semitism seemed to have been an indulgence of many 20th century artists, from Wagner to T.S. Eliot. Picasso was violent to women; going further back in time, Caravaggio was a murderer. The list goes on. How should we regard the work of these artists?
The view that art is separate from and above the people who make it is but a way of regarding art as disconnected from its context. Also, the idea that the artist is a 'genius', hence above reproach, is open to question. I do not buy it, the personal circumstances of the artist become relevant because an individual is still connected to his/her social environment.
Artemisia Gentileschi. Susanna and the Elders Image from Wikimedia Commons
Why then, at the other end of the spectrum, are we so willing to dissociate mostly male artists with the violence of their actions and their crimes? Can we really say that Wagner's music does not have a note of anti-semitism in it? Perhaps not his 'pure music' but his operas, well, they do.
I cannot be prescriptive. At the end of the day, it is also, very much so, a matter of personal choice. Banning art is not desirable. But I would spend some time learning about who made a particular work and then decide whether I can live with their sins or not.