Controversial artists don’t get a free pass

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Even if an artist is talented, it may not be morally acceptable to engage with their art in the context of their actions.  Photo by     Monica Silvestre     from     Pexels

Even if an artist is talented, it may not be morally acceptable to engage with their art in the context of their actions. Photo by Monica Silvestre from Pexels

Art is a manifestation of the artist. Incidents in music, sports and most recently, literature, all demand that we address the question: Should one judge the quality of art based on its artist?  

“Surely not,” argue many, mocking the preposterousness of my proposition — that I even dare to ask such a question. In support of their claims, they flimsily reference our idealization of Edgar Allen Poe, who married his 13-year old cousin, and Michael Jackson, who raped young boys. We may idolize the achievements of uncountably many morally questionable historical characters, but to cite this idea while arguing in support of the continuance of such practices is vain and fatalistic.  

 When James Levine, former musical director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, was accused by fellow musicians of sexual assault, I felt deep moral disgust toward the man who had once stood among America’s most highly esteemed conductors. Thousands came forward, disgracing the art he had produced, and his legacy became irreparably tarnished. Even more recently, after the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Serbian genocide-condoning and dictator-supporting nationalist Peter Handke, protests broke out around the world, deriding both the author and the awarding committee. The argument was that Handke’s literary pieces should not be acknowledged due to his own far-right political beliefs. So what makes our reaction toward James Levine and Peter Handke so different than our response toward other controversial artists? 

Perhaps it is the appeal of popularity which prevents us from recognizing moral issues in pop culture. Thousands of fans rally in support of singer-songwriters Chris Brown and R. Kelly, both repeatedly accused of assault and the latter of whom was once indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. It seems to the general populous that talents and musical ability overshadow a penchant for aggression and a looming history of violence. Social constructs dictate that we remain in solidarity with prominent artists for fear of ostracism, but such sentiments are misplaced.  

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Is it ever okay for a critic to engage with morally questionable art?

Is it ever okay for a critic to engage with morally questionable art? We cannot expect all artists to be virtuous, nor do we. In our studies, we have to acknowledge the seriousness of artists’ actions, but we cannot forget the artist, because then we would be overlooking the severity of what they did. If one’s work is important at a particular time, then time spent studying the art with a critical eye is justified. Such a perspective is not to be confused with an endorsement, because then we purvey the message that we are, at least morally, complicit in the artist’s actions.  

The issue is not black and white. Rather there exists a nonlinear scale where, as an artist becomes increasingly morally questionable, their art becomes increasingly more dubious. An artist with a history of assault should be judged more harshly than an artist with controversial political views. All artists should be questioned. 

Where do we draw the ethical line? When does it become ‘no longer okay’ to appreciate a morally questionable artist? We must regard art as a representation of the artist, and we must judge the art per the artist’s values. Morally controversial art may be appreciated, but it must be regarded in a prejudiced context.  

Art tends to be appreciated superficially. However, when such vapid un-involvement becomes the credo by which people purport morally questionable beliefs, then we must rise to question our own opinions, lest we epitomize arrogance. This is especially true since such arrogance tends to manifest in the art itself, for instance, through the predatory language about women which Chris Brown uses in his songs. The production of art is not enough to warrant ignorance against an artist’s behavior, and those who refuse to challenge artists are philistines.  

 It is time for us, as the denizens of society, to become responsible for the art which we appreciate. Our current representation of controversial media demands a socio-dynamic shift where we challenge social dogmas and demand accountability from morally questionable artists. We must critically reflect on who we choose to support and realize that in not doing so, we are endorsing the (im)morality of an artist. It has become our responsibility to challenge society’s perverse norms.  

Then, the question remains: When should morally questionable artists be stripped of their accolades?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.


Neal Krishna is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at neal.krishna@uconn.edu.

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