After #metoo and other movements for inclusiveness and acceptance, “call-out culture” and “cancellation” are in full swing. Cancelling doesn’t only mean censuring someone’s crimes: it means a total freezing out of the person and their work, sometimes also known as “deplatforming”. And it seems like every week another artist, writer or public figure is revealed as an abuser of some kind and therefore “cancelled”. (There’s even a tongue-in-cheek website for checking someone’s current status: amicancelled.com.)
These days, when I think about my favourite musicians and movie stars, I attach a footnote of fervent hope that they won’t be revealed as monsters – I mean, they all seem nice enough, but who can have confidence in appearances any more? And if that does happen, what do I do about my love for their artistic output?
I wonder aloud about this on Twitter, and someone offers a bizarre solution: that it’s OK to watch/listen to/read work produced up to the date of an offence, but not from afterwards. I resist Googling the date that Jackson recorded P.Y.T.
I haven’t watched (and won’t watch) Leaving Neverland, so I’m hazy on the dates of his attacks anyway. When the art is so creepily close to the offending – P.Y.T. stands for Pretty Young Thing – the choice seems easier. Who could admire Donald Friend’s sketches of young Balinese boys after reading Friend’s diary extracts documenting his abuse of those same boys? Not me.
But sometimes the connection is looser, less direct. Weinstein was a predator: does that mean I can’t watch Shakespeare In Love (once was enough, to be honest), or let my kid watch Paddington Bear?
Perhaps the key is whether the person in question will profit by my consuming their art. On that basis, Jackson’s music would be OK now that he’s dead, but everyone who gets a cut of American Beauty’s profits would suffer for Kevin Spacey’s sins.
How badly do we need to consume art made by perpetrators? Perhaps there’s enough great art out there that we can get what we need from non-abusive creators. But could we do without Picasso? Earlier this year, the Art Gallery of Ballarat staged an exhibition of Picasso prints. The gallery felt moved to add a public discussion of the artist’s treatment of women, but the exhibition itself was not in question. Picasso, too, is too big to cancel.
I don’t mourn the supposed innocence of a time when artists and their art were separated. That time never really existed. Personas and personalities have always been part of the reception – and marketing – of art and music. And I won’t use the cliché about no one being perfect, because some acts are clearly unforgivable.
I’m just struggling with the disconnect between what I feel – the urge to move my feet to the beat, my response to the fluid line of a Picasso sketch – and what I know. I wonder about the grace beauty can bring to our lives, even if its source is questionable. Where to draw that line between unforgivable acts and human fallibility.
I wonder about the room for redemption and the possibility that an artist – even one who’s behaved badly – might, as comic-book villains are urged to do, use their powers for good and not evil.
Next January, an American rapper whose stage name is Tyler, The Creator is due to perform in Australia. He began his career as a spouter of homophobic slurs and lyrics referencing violence against women.
In 2015 he cancelled an Australian tour because of a petition against giving him a visa, and an organiser of the petition was subjected to a vitriolic backlash. Lately, Tyler, The Creator has been an advocate of inclusive diversity, and drops more-than-broad hints about his own bisexuality in his lyrics and tweets. People change.
There has to be a line between what can be forgiven and what’s beyond the pale. As a community, we sometimes have to agree on where it lies: do we let Tyler, The Creator into our country? What do we show in our art galleries?
As individuals, it’s a day to day question. I don’t think I can ever listen to Michael Jackson without feeling somehow disturbed, but I won’t be taking my Picasso reproductions off my walls.
Jenny Sinclair is a Melbourne writer.