When the creator of the ‘wall of sound’ died recently, the BBC declared in its headline ‘Talented but flawed producer Phil Spector dies aged 81’. Even allowing for British understatement, this was a somewhat astonishing headline, given that Spector died in jail where he was confined for murdering Lana Clarkson.
An uproar understandably ensued and the BBC changed the headline and apologised. But the bigger question that Spector’s death and its reportage raise is how we recognise and memorialise artists – whether they be musicians, writers, or painters – who are, well, flawed.
The owners of a new independent bookshop in Wellington have announced their own formula, that ‘The line is where people are using their public platforms to promulgate misinformation, bigotry or hate speech.’ They want to have an ‘inclusive space’ and will not stock certain books whose authors’ views don’t align with their values. To be clear, this is not about the content of the books themselves being ‘problematic’, to use the preferred parlance, but their authors.
The owners are, of course, entitled to choose their principles and sell whatever books they wish and to take the commercial risk on doing so. But such a stance invites scrutiny as to how those principles are applied.
Predictably, JK Rowling, the author of the most successful book series in history, is excluded from their inclusive space. Rowling has ‘problematic’ views on sex and gender, including that sex is real, it is demeaning to label women ‘people who menstruate’ and (while stating that trans people are vulnerable and warrant protection) that women should have safe spaces like bathrooms.
However, another popular children’s author, Roald Dahl, has not earned the owners’ opprobrium. A virulent self-proclaimed antisemite, he stated that ‘there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. … Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason’. This certainly seems to meet the owners’ litmus test for de-platforming. Are we to assume that Dahl’s views align with the owners’ values or is there something else at play here, perhaps that he’s dead?
I won’t ask them, because I don’t want them to stop stocking Dahl. In fact, I bought his books for my children, not wanting to deprive them of his magical world, that flourishing of imagination. And it would never have crossed my mind to demand others to forgo that pleasure to appease me.
I don’t have the moral certitude – and nor should anyone – to tell others who are acceptable artists, and besides, I realise that I too have ostensibly irreconcilable standards. I bought Dahl’s books, but I won’t pay to see a Mel Gibson or Ken Loach movie.
The Wellington bookstore is inconsequential. But it is, in a sense, a microcosm of the current moral panic – the cancel culture in which progressives feel the urge to purge society and history of people who fall foul of the prevailing orthodoxy. Almost every day it seems, another artist’s defenestration is called for, on increasingly tenuous grounds. Last week, Melbourne bookstore Readings capitulated to a genderqueer author by apologising for hosting the gender critical feminist Julie Bindel three years ago when she was promoting her book on the sex trade. Conservative actor Gina Carano was also fired from The Mandalorian, purportedly for making a Holocaust comparison, which was ludicrous but much less offensive than many such comparisons regularly made.
The question of whether and how we should separate the art from the artist is not new. It is arguable that creators should not be held to any personal standards since they are as fallible – and often more so – than the rest of us and their misconduct doesn’t devalue or taint the art. The counter-argument is that a creative platform is a privilege that should, for reasons that are not usually articulated but likely involve punishment and public protection, be lost under certain circumstances of wrongdoing.
But what are those circumstances? Is committing a crime less repugnant than promulgating hate? What if there’s no conviction for a crime, but the court of public opinion issues its judgment? What about stating objectionable beliefs? Does the medium make a difference? Can an apology achieve redemption? If the artist is dead or the misdeed happened long ago, does it still matter?
Even when we reach a broad-based consensus that an artist has done wrong, the consequences are contentious. Should someone be fired? Is buying her creation complicity? Should his music be expunged from the airwaves or painting removed from the gallery, like it never existed? Can we just add an advisory? Should she be awarded, or allowed to keep, a prize or honour?
No one has all the answers, but that’s good. The process of asking these questions and participating in the debate is itself educative and valuable. It’s when we stop having the debate and think we have a bright line test for artistic abnegation that we have something like China’s social credit system. Individuals should be trusted to weigh the artistic merits against the perceived moral failings of the artist and determine their relationship with the art, an entirely subjective and complex process.
The price of upholding individual autonomy is inconsistency. Consider the vastly different treatment of male artists who have been accused (and in some cases convicted) of predatory or abusive practices towards minors – Roman Polanksi, Drake, Kevin Spacey, Dennis Nona, Bryan Singer, David Bowie, Rolf Harris, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Gary Glitter.
Increasingly, however, we will be dependent on the omnipotent purveyors of art like Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, Apple and Amazon and beholden to authoritarian collectivists – a self-appointed Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice – who are certain that while facts and science don’t exist, their value judgements, their ‘truth’, should override yours.
We do not have to inhabit a fantastical dystopian universe to imagine that one day, not so far away, Amazon will be pressured by customers or staff to eradicate Rowling’s spawn for the greater good. We can only hope that these platforms eschew the snivelling self-abasement that we have seen recently and uphold individual autonomy, but an oxymoronic Union of Individualists may have to join forces with brave small independent distributors to defeat the moronic mob. Pessimist and luddite that I am, I may yet be vindicated for my continuing insistence on buying paper books, but they won’t be from those Wellington or Melbourne bookstores.
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