Community & Education Opinion

Cultural icons with dirty secrets: how should we treat artists with major personal flaws?

The new documentary on Michael Jackson’s history of child abuse has resurrected an old head-scratcher. Popular is a stingy adjective to describe Jackson’s history-making music and expansive influence in the entertainment world. But however big the imprint he and his art made, a clear reminder that he was very likely an abusive paedophile should surely dent the enthusiasm of even his biggest fans.

The recent death of Karl Lagerfeld, he of the iconic white collar and huge influence on fashion, led to trenchant back and forth within the Twitterverse regarding his controversial legacy as well. Art of a very different form from Jackson’s, but art nonetheless.

Obituaries heralding Lagerfeld as a right good egg didn’t sit well with everyone. Actress and activist Jameela Jamil lambently critiqued his highly questionable attitude toward women, pointing to his record of fat-shaming and misogyny, and others remarked on his history of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic remarks.

Model Cara Delevingne leapt to his defence, saying she did not feel that “living in the past and bringing things up that have already happened helps anything.”

Karl Lagerfeld

Karl Lagerfeld. Photo: Wikicommons.

‘Cancelling culture’ is a term that I have seen around lately, which feels melodramatic in its finality, but deserves consideration. Promoting and glorifying an offensive artist or their art leads to its continued positive, or at least, robust, placement in culture. But can one haul it out by the roots and do away with it, erasing all historical meaning and impact?

In most cases, I don’t think so, as tempting as it is to try. The reality is that their art exists because of them, and at times, in spite of them. Some art becomes particularly meaningful when it becomes an indelible part of a person’s memory or context. It isn’t easy to do away with, even in the face of any abhorrent realities of that person’s entirety.

“Who is served by keeping it around?” a question that critic Wesley Morris asked last year in an excellent piece on applying morality to art and culture. It provides a good framework for thinking how one might approach these convoluted messes, in which we harbour admiration for the art or artist, but have to revisit our feelings after nasty things about them are revealed.

The idea of separating art from the artist can be applied as well, to see if that helps assess what one can continue to consume or support, in the interest of trying to separate the good from the vile.

But is it right to separate an alleged paedophile from the music he made? Won’t our continued support of his music signal a level of acceptance for that repugnant behaviour? Would it be right to separate a misogynist from the clothing he designed if the very industry he influenced creates misogyny to some level as well?

Or, what if some of the art could stand alone without the artist’s problematic aspects coming through it? Is it then right to apply morality around the artist to the art itself, once it’s released from its creator so to speak? These situations are complex and ripe for dissonance, particularly when we speak of art we are fond of.

I am reminded of my own problem with Enid Blyton, the prolific author I grew up reading. Narratives of rebellious yet strangely principled children, magical lands upon trees, lashings of ginger beer, good dogs, and adventures on moors, are what made me spend a significant chunk of my childhood poring over her panoply of books.

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton. Photo: Wikicommons.

Tragedy struck when, as an adult, many a blatant racist, sexist, classist, and xenophobic perspective came to light as I re-read some of my old favourite Blyton gems. I looked into it.

Others had analysed it in detail, concluded similarly, and it was not pretty to have one of my favourite artists shoved off the pedestal she had been ensconced on. I found myself trying to attribute her infractions to the limitations of her era.

She wrote during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, rather dim decades for awareness, all told. Some hemming and hawing later, I decided it would be better to acknowledge things in the full context from my newly educated lens, rather than feigning blindness to the obvious, or trying to excuse it.

It does etiolate the glory she and her art basked in within my memories, but does not mean that my affection for her art has disappeared completely, or that I have managed to ‘cancel’ it at all (I suspect I couldn’t if I tried). But I must always think of it in context – revulsion, my historic appreciation for her engaging storytelling, and everything in between.

To answer Morris’s question, context is key for art we still see value in ‘keeping around’ in spite of its creator. In trying to figure out who is served by this ‘keeping,’ I suggest that it shouldn’t just be a consideration of you, reader, or me, but an assessment of the wider impact, particularly on those victimised by any positive heralding of it.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson. Photo: Wikicommons.

That is because the observation that society vaunts offenders, dead or alive, can be crushing to anyone who has received the offence or thinks it was wrong.

While one can and should parse the level of severity, Jackson’s purported sexual abuse of minors, Lagerfeld’s misogyny, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, and even Blyton’s sexism, racism, classism, and xenophobia, are all very much in the category of ‘wrong.’

Most times, unlike the individuals in the Jackson documentary who are finally more fully in the limelight, victims remain under the radar and don’t get to say their piece while offenders continue to be glorified.

It’s also a question of looking beyond one’s own experience; while thin non-Muslim, non-Jewish model Delevingne has the privilege of being able to excuse her friend Lagerfeld’s cruel remarks or see his legacy with pure positivity, others do not.

“Bringing things up that have already happened,” which she plangently asks us not to, may be uncomfortable, but it has to happen. As we contemplate legacies, knowing the context, complete with its poisons, makes us all responsible for what we choose to do with that knowledge, and sweeping it under a proverbial rug is not the way.

Cultural icons with dirty secrets: how should we treat artists with major personal flaws?