In #MeToo age, can we love the art but deplore the artist?

Andrea De Silva/Reuters/File
R&B artist R. Kelly performs in St. Lucia in 2013. After the documentary ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ aired this month, detailing allegations of sexual assault against teenage girls, both his label and publisher dropped him.

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Jeffrey McCune went to the same high school R. Kelly attended just a few years before. “When I was a young Chicagoan, R. Kelly represented a hope in us all to surpass the constraints of the South Side or of the idea of limited blackness,” says Dr. McCune, a professor, actor, and playwright in St. Louis. Yet as a member of his high school’s choir, he sat next to one of the women who accused the Grammy Award-winning R&B artist of sexual assault, and he witnessed firsthand the life-altering consequences of Kelly’s alleged crimes on young girls. The moral reckonings of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have posed vexing questions: How should we feel now about the art produced by men considered masters, if not “geniuses,” of their crafts? It’s a question being asked at museums, concert halls, and this week’s Oscar nomination ceremony. “And that’s what I think the real tension here is: that art forges itself, that music generates within a space that can be liberating for some and yet really troubling for others,” Professor McCune says. “And still again, at the same time it can be both for some people.”

Why We Wrote This

What happens to the artist as “enfant terrible” in an age of morality clauses and #MeToo? Does socially condemned behavior discredit a person’s artistic vision?

Jeffrey McCune has never hesitated to speak out against what he calls the predatory energy and aggressive, toxic masculinity in R. Kelly’s music.

As an artist and social thinker, Dr. McCune has probed what he and others see as long-embedded patterns of patriarchy in American culture, “a culture that continues to produce moments of sickness and violence, which we see in R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey and so many others.”

But the moral reckonings of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have also posed vexing questions for him and a host of people around the country: How should we feel now about the art produced by these men, each considered masters, if not “geniuses,” of their crafts?

Why We Wrote This

What happens to the artist as “enfant terrible” in an age of morality clauses and #MeToo? Does socially condemned behavior discredit a person’s artistic vision?

It’s a question, too, being asked within the halls of the high arts, as major painters and classical musicians accused of sexual harassment have also seen their contracts severed, their exhibitions cancelled, and their public reputations disgraced. Indeed, “Can I love the art but deplore the artist?” has become a moral question with both civic and deeply personal implications.

Especially for McCune, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He came of age in Chicago deeply influenced by the music of R. Kelly, who attended the same high school he did a few years before.

“When I was a young Chicagoan, R. Kelly represented a hope in us all to surpass the constraints of the South Side or of the idea of limited blackness,” says McCune, an actor and playwright in St. Louis. “His voice was a representation of the audacity to speak beyond the moral boundaries in our black Christian communities.” The trajectory of his own life as a scholar and performer, in fact, “was really made possible through my engagement with Kelly’s music,” he says.

Yet as member of his high school’s choir, he sat next to one of the women who later accused the Grammy Award-winning R&B artist of sexual assault, and he witnessed firsthand the life-altering consequences of Kelly’s alleged crimes and how the singer used his music as a lure for underage girls.

“That gave his music for me a much different type of meaning, of course, but that didn’t necessarily negate the importance and centrality that R. Kelly had to my own personal liberation,” McCune says.

“And that’s what I think the real tension here is: that art forges itself, that music generates within a space that can be liberating for some and yet really troubling for others,” he continues. “And still again, at the same time it can be both for some people.”

Such vexing personal conundrums, however, are just part of a long tradition of questions about the purpose of art in human culture and whether or not there are certain moral dangers posed by powerful works of art and the powerful, charismatic artists behind them.

And be they rock stars, writers, or painters, such artists, most all of them men, have often been given an implicit moral pass. Especially during the 19th century through the present era, a mythology developed of the artist as “enfant terrible,” or a Bohemian eccentric who believes, like the Romantic poet William Blake, that the “road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Male artists, especially, are often expected to be mercurial rebels, “geniuses” with an original and often countercultural vision of the world.

“They were permitted to be drunken or intolerably diva-esque, or people would actually wink at their abuse of the people around them,” says Crispin Sartwell, professor of art and art history at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “You might even expect that from a genius.”

“And while I think that that figure was always a bit of a fiction, on the other hand, I do think artists often have a problematic or outsider relationship to the culture they’re in,” continues Professor Sartwell. “Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not, but it’s an extremely valuable thing, and we’re going to have to tolerate some transgressions from within the arts, especially when artists continue to press upon our assumptions or values. That's a central function of the arts,” he says.

But in the Judeo-Christian West, there has also been a tradition of deep suspicion toward the arts, as well as deep ambivalence about the emotional power of music and visual images and the charismatic performances behind them. Art has the particular moral power to lead people astray, corrupt a person’s soul, and thus endanger the wider society.

The Greek philosopher Plato, too, believed individual souls should set their minds on eternal ideals and perfect “forms.” In his ideal Republic, the arts would be banned, since they represented imperfect imitations of the imperfect shadows of the physical world and thus a mental space dangerously removed from eternal truth.

Aristotle, on the other hand, thought artistic works could embody the eternal ideals already woven into the physical world. In his influential “Poetics,” he observed that viewers of the tragic and grotesque could experience a “catharsis,” or an emotional cleansing.  

Yet both believed what many believe today: Art can have some kind of connection to the transcendent, whether a real or merely psychological state, and the individual “genius,” regardless of his behavior, may have an intimation of a reality beyond the rational.

“Can we separate the artist from their work? Certainly we can, and must, if we hope to have robust literary, visual, and performing arts in our future,” says Jeff Deist, a conservative social critic and the president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Ala. The idiosyncrasies of artists are often part and parcel of their talent, he says, and in many ways their expression of truth is separate from their moral behavior.

“We should resist the trend of boycotting art due to the acts or identity of the artist,” Mr. Deist continues. “Would we tear down a bridge designed by a bigot, or refuse heart surgery from a talented doctor whose political views oppose our own?”

But the trend has been wide-ranging. The Academy Awards this year is again a focus of the #MeToo movement. Bryan Singer, the listed director of the film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” nominated for best picture, is accused of abusing or raping teenage boys. Mr. Singer called the latest allegations, detailed in the Atlantic, a “homophobic smear piece.” The comedian Kevin Hart, slated to be this year’s host, dropped out after past homophobic tweets resurfaced.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/File
Director Bryan Singer, shown at the 2013 premiere of ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,’ has been accused of sexually assaulting minors in an exposé published by the Atlantic. In a statement, Mr. Singer denied the charges and called the article a ‘homophobic smear piece.’

In the rarified worlds of high art, too, the National Gallery of Art in Washington cancelled solo exhibitions last year scheduled for the renowned painter Chuck Close and accomplished photographer Thomas Roma, both of whom were accused of sexual misconduct. And last year the Metropolitan Opera in New York fired its long-time conductor, James Levine, for what the Met called credible evidence of allegations of sexual harassment or abuse of seven men. 

“There is, of course, a long history of tension between public morality and artistic visions,” says Paddy Johnson, a writer and art critic who helps run PARADE, a nonprofit arts organization in Queens. “Often this tension reflects ideological power struggles,” and traditions of free speech in the modern era recognized the dangers of censorship and the value of self-expression and unorthodox ideas.

“But the fight to be heard plays out a little differently now because there actually is a crisis of moral values,” says Ms. Johnson. In the context of the #MeToo movement and the exposure of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of society, the words and actions of provocateurs like a Louis C.K. or even the countercultural flamboyance of a Milo Yiannopoulos can quickly lose their resonance and thus their power.

“We don’t need art to transgress norms as a means of challenging the status quo anymore,” she says. “Those norms are gone. We can, however, look to art to help us see the world a little differently. But you can’t really understand art unless you understand the context.”

Return of the morality clause

And there is a difference between the moral choices of individuals and those of businesses and public institutions, many observers say.

The charges against Kelly go back decades, with the singer having been acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008. After the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” aired this month, both his label and publisher dropped Kelly. The music streaming business Spotify this week created a feature that allows users to mute him and others after a “hate content and hateful conduct” policy was launched and then repealed last year.

And some media companies have returned to the early 20th-century tradition of adding the “morality clause” in their contracts. A part of the film industry in the 1920s through the 1960s, morality clauses tried to ensure, as Diest points out, “a Hollywood mystique, where actors literally had contractual obligations never to appear publicly in casual dress” or to engage in anything that could be considered scandalous behavior.

In the 1940s and 1950s, a number of artists and screenwriters saw their contracts invalidated by their morality clauses during the McCarthy era. And federal courts dismissed their lawsuits against studios and publishers, ruling that “a large segment of the public did look down upon Communism and Communists as things of evil,” so they violated their agreement to refrain from any behavior that could “bring him into public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.”  

“Morality clauses are designed by lawyers for various business and legal risk management safeguards, but they can badly harm the artist’s creativity,” says Jeffrey Leving, a Chicago-based attorney and painter who negotiates the contracts of a number of artists and writers. “Such clauses can be harmful to freedom of speech and the creative expression which defines artists.”

“As both an artist and as a lawyer representing artists, I understand the purpose behind morality clauses but find many are created out of paranoia and have no real value,” Mr. Leving says.

“I would not have signed a contract with my publisher if it contained a morality clause for this book or any of the others.... There is no art without creativity.”

When the ‘price of genius’ is paid by others

Many women, however, emphasize that the issues raised in the #MeToo era have challenged many of the long-held assumptions about the nature of creativity and the role of artists in society.

And instead of an idea of art that sees a “genius” able to connect to deeper insights about the world or a transcendent realm, many see a much more complex process of human values and artistic production embedded in a wider social matrix.

“We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius,” wrote the social thinker and writer Roxane Gay, reflecting on the enormous role “The Cosby Show” played in her life in her essay Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist? “In truth, we should have learned this lesson long ago, but we have a cultural fascination with creative and powerful men who are also ‘mercurial’ or ‘volatile.’ ”

No matter the impact the comedian had on her identity, “it is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art, when the truth is no half hour of television is so excellent that anyone’s suffering is recompense.”

Mark Makela/AP
Bill Cosby accusers (from l.) Caroline Heldman, Lili Bernard, and Victoria Valentino (r.) react outside the courtroom after the comedian was found guilty in his sexual assault retrial on April 26, 2018, at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, Pa.

“The value of art is decided by human beings, and the value of human beings is decided by human beings,” says Irina Aristarkhova, a professor of art history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “When one of those value judgments is in conflict with another, forcing us to take sides, our discussions reveal how moral decisions are being made and on whose terms and under which circumstances.

“I welcome an acknowledgment that we should discuss the value of human beings and not just art, and seeing it from that perspective is useful,” Professor Aristarkhova says.

It’s a perspective that McCune has long embraced as a performance theorist and social critic. But even amid his own ambivalence about the role R. Kelly’s music has played in his life and continues to play in his thinking about sexuality and black culture, he also sees in art a deep and perhaps ironic truth.

“Some of the stuff that we don’t like about art and artists is what actually creates the gumbo, so to speak,” McCune says. “I think that it’s hard for us to manage the fact that what actually produces art is not just the good and pleasant things that happen; it’s also what we might consider the darker things.”

“I think that’s the conundrum, because part of it is that the beauty of the thing we love, and the complexity of the art that moves us so – it’s just precisely because of its relationship to that which we might think is immoral,” he says. “We enjoy thinking about the presence of the good as producing light, and we want to reproduce that.”

“But oftentimes artists create their work from a place of pain and sorrow as well as joy,” McCune says. “It’s made in troubled spaces as it is in triumphant spaces. And so we have to wrestle with that.”

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