Culture, Opinion

Opinion: On separating the art from the artist

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By Shawna Healey


Criticism is the ‘bread and butter’ of Twitter. The platform is seemingly pointless without people being ‘called out’ and branded ‘not woke’, and arguing with one another over things that one wouldn’t argue over in ‘real life’.

However, whilst this is usually pretty benign debate, such as ‘what colour is this dress?’ and which side of the Khloe/Jordyn debacle you’re on, Twitter can and does bring up some interesting points.

Over the last couple of days, the piercing documentary Leaving Neverland has been aired on CBS in America and Channel 4 here in the UK. The documentary follows two men, Wade Robson and James ‘Jimmy’ Safechuck, in their allegations that late star Michael Jackson committed acts of sexual abuse against children in the late 80s early 90s.

The documentary and the discussion surrounding Michael Jackson is simultaneously interesting and sickening from both a journalistic and human point of view, and also brings up the ‘art vs. artist debate’ one again.

The debate is relevant now more than ever, with so many celebrities, musicians, artists being ‘cancelled’ and branded ‘problematic faves’.

Is it okay to enjoy art made by ‘problematic’ people? Drawing the line can be difficult, and whilst many people will disagree with me, I believe its a deeply personal one.

Is it okay to watch American Beauty because Kevin Spacey is in it? Is it okay to watch Project Runway, Sin City or even Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams because Harvey Weinstein produced them?

Radio stations globally are announcing that they’re pulling Michael Jackson’s discography from their playlists because of the allegations made in the documentary. Should they?

It seems to me too premature to say that we should no longer listen to Jackson’s music. Although I don’t see myself reaching for any of albums any time soon, should we be made to feel guilty for doing the Thriller dance at a club during Halloween? Maybe, perhaps. However, I don’t think we should force it.

Forcing it would be hypocritical. There are too many ‘problematic faves’ in Hollywood past and present to point the finger at people and say that they’re wrong for still consuming art by imperfect human beings.

Would I think it slightly questionable if someone’s choice album continued to be Bad or Thriller? Sure, but then some people may think my affinity with Elvis Presley is weird, and others may feel the same about someone’s favourite film being The Pianist or Chinatown by Roman Polanski.

Some of these artists have done horrendous things, which is hard to ignore, and hard to separate from their art, and it’s arguable that because of the things they’ve done their work should be buried in the sand and forgot about.

However, it is pretty irrefutable that Michael Jackson, for example, was a pioneer in music. He was the first black man to be shown on MTV and has inspired countless musicians, and we would be naive to not recognise this.

As long as people recognise the difference between art and artist, which admittedly is incredibly difficult, especially in modern times when we feel connected with people we don’t know because of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, then I think we can enjoy the ‘art’ without the ‘artist’. Especially when the ‘art’ often involves far more people than just the director, producer, actor or singer. The problem lies in the misguided belief that artists are the person that they perform in the media, and when fans subsequently idolise them like a God.

Many Michael Jackson fans can’t seem to see past his “child-loving” and “child-like” persona and listen to what the abuse victims are saying. Michael Jackson wasn’t a God, and above being a popstar, he is a human being. This is the problem. Defending his art? Fair enough. Defending him as if you know him, and not believing the victims of abuse? That’s where the line is.

About the author / 

Shawna Healey

I'm Shawna, 21, and Welsh studying Geography at MMU. I have varying interests and opinions but usually its all things feminism.

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