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Who are the acceptable artists and whom do we boycott, cancel, ignore, purge from our collections? Well, it depends on your world and political views really; except that somewhere one has to draw a universal line on wholly unacceptable behaviour and express tangible disapproval. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young did by stepping off the Spotify platform over some radical Covid-19 views expressed by a fellow contributor. What’s interesting to me about Ivo Vegter’s critique of cancel culture journalistic prober, Ryland Fisher, is that he amplifies by expanding hugely on Fisher’s examples. Vegter cites the misdeeds and repugnant behaviour of some of the great artists of history, many of whom few would like to see cancelled. Sets me thinking about the continuum we all live on; religiously expressed as good and evil, psychologically expressed as degrees of bipolarity. The human capacity for greatness is offset by a dark and often hidden side. This article first appeared in the Daily Friend. – Chris Bateman
Cancel culture conundrum: how to deal with the work of controversial artists
By Ivo Vegter*
Ryland Fisher recently raised an interesting question: what do we do with ‘the art created by monstrous men’ (and women)? It isn’t an easy question to answer. (Warning: this column quotes vile racist slurs.)
Ryland Fisher, whose work one should probably shun since he once was the editor of the Gupta-owned newspaper, The New Age, has a problem. He doesn’t know how to react to the work of artists who, it turns out, are ‘deeply flawed’.
In an opinion piece written for the Daily Maverick, he wrings his hands as he considers the proper response to various controversial artists. In fairness to him, his questions are not easily answered.
His first example involves Zwelethu Mthethwa, an artist who turned out to be more than just ‘deeply flawed’, since he was convicted of murdering a woman (whom Fisher unnecessarily identifies as a ‘sex worker’, as if it makes any difference what her occupation was).
Mthethwa’s art is, for reasons that are not immediately clear to me, highly rated. Is it any better or worse for knowing that the artist was a criminal? I don’t know that it is. I can understand not wishing to enrich the guy by buying his art, but destroying it, as Fisher contemplates? What good would that do?
His next example is Eric Clapton, who is certainly an interesting case. “One can think here of Eric Clapton, one of the best guitarists in the world and someone whose music informed much of my youth,” writes Fisher. “But then I discovered he was racist and xenophobic, and I had no choice but to stop listening to his music.”
That doesn’t tell even half the story. Clapton went on a vile racist rant in 1976 at a concert in Birmingham. Visibly intoxicated, he slurred his way through some shocking far-right hate: “I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism. It’s much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch [Powell, a controversial anti-immigrationist politician] will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here… Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”
This outburst was a major catalyst for the Rock Against Racism movement, so I guess something good came out of it.
Many years later, and after he got sober, Clapton apologised, blaming it on the drugs and booze. His struggles with heroin in the 1970s and alcohol until the late 1980s were well documented, so his excuse was not entirely unreasonable. Since addiction is now widely recognised as a form of mental illness, is that a mitigating circumstance?
Perhaps one wouldn’t like to have a pint with ol’ Slowhand. But do we erase the highly influential music Clapton created because he was once a racist junkie and still holds unpalatable views?
Do we also cancel the bands he’s played with, like the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Blind Faith? Do we cancel The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film tribute to The Band, in which Clapton played?
Perhaps we should cancel only those collaborations that happened after he came out as a racist in 1976, such as Roger Waters’ solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, and Live Aid, held to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia.
Do we cancel famine relief, because of its association with the despicably racist Clapton (as opposed to, say, because it undermines local producers, thereby perpetuating famine)?
Conviction or suspicion
Fisher then points to singer R. Kelly, actor Bill Cosby and singer Michael Jackson. Kelly was convicted of child sexual exploitation and other crimes. He’s definitely guilty. Cosby’s conviction for aggravated indecent assault has been set aside on procedural grounds, but he still faces two lawsuits alleging sexual assault, one of which involves a minor. I don’t think anyone thinks he isn’t guilty. Michael Jackson was acquitted of charges of sexual abuse against children, and though he certainly looks guilty, he might not be.
This raises a new problem: how certain does one have to be before cancelling a ‘deeply flawed’ individual? Is mere allegation, or mere suspicion, enough?
But then let’s be consistent, and cancel Tupac Shakur (rapper convicted of sexual assault in 1995), Burzum (black metal artist convicted of arson and murder), Charles Manson (okay, his music is terrible, and so is he, so go ahead and cancel him), Fela Kuti (a Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer, convicted and jailed for currency smuggling), Lil’ Kim (served prison time for conspiracy and perjury), Lil Wayne (did time for weapons and drug possession), Lindsay Lohan (convicted of theft), Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul & Mary, convicted and jailed for the sexual assault of an underage groupie), Phil Spector (convicted and jailed for murder), and many more.
David Bowie also had a few choice things to say about his admiration for fascism. He, too, would later apologise and blame it on the drugs and booze.
The list of dodgy artists doesn’t end with musicians, of course. What about Caravaggio, a violent, ill-tempered man and a murderer? Benvenuto Cellini committed multiple murders but got away with them because of his fame as an artist. Banksy’s entire oeuvre is a crime, seeing as painting graffiti on other people’s property is a crime.
Picasso had some ancient Iberian statues in his studio, stolen from the Louvre in Paris. Egon Schiele, an Austrian expressionist and protégé of Gustav Klimt, possibly molested his own sister, was arrested on suspicion of seducing a 13-year-old girl and was eventually convicted of displaying pornography where it was accessible to children.
In the 15th century, Friar Filippo Lippi seduced and had children with a young nun, violating ecclesiastical law, but was protected from prosecution by his patron, Cosimo de’ Medici. In the early 20th century, watercolour artist and suffragette Olive Wharry was imprisoned for burning down the tea house at Kew Gardens.
Street artist Shepard Fairey, most famous for creating Barack Obama’s Hope poster, was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced for damaging property. Richard Dadd, a Victorian artist famous for his detailed paintings of fairies and other supernatural scenes, was a schizophrenic who, in a fit of paranoia, murdered his own father.
Children’s book author and illustrator Harry Horse flew off the handle, viciously stabbed his terminally ill wife to death, before killing his dog and cat and finally stabbing himself to death. Francisco Franco painted Bear and Hounds but was also a little problematic as the fascist dictator of Spain.
The beautifully elegant painting Blue Ladies was painted by Reggie Kray a notorious gangster in London in the 1950s and 1960s. A public sculpture in the city of Hull, entitled Man Under Threat, was created by gangster Jimmy Boyle, whose interest in art was sparked by a rehabilitation programme in prison, where he had served a long sentence for murder.
In 2015, a pretty poor painting of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria sold for £71 500. Its creator was none other than Adolf Hitler.
The thing is, it’s impossible to be consistent. Some crimes are worse than others, and some people, like Gary Glitter and Adolf Hitler, are more deserving of being cancelled than others.
In some cases, it is exactly because the artist was tortured with anguish, grief or mental illness and its consequences, that their art is so striking. In some cases, it is their experience of crime, or prison, that informs their art and makes it meaningful.
If one does draw a line, one surely shouldn’t draw it as far as, say, theft, vandalism and loose morals. Yet, Fisher has no such qualms.
He continues his slide down the slippery slope by name-checking South African DJ Black Coffee and American singer-songwriter Janis Ian. Their crimes? Black Coffee played some gigs in Israel, and Ian was a Zionist, according to some guy on Facebook. Ian also broke the cultural boycott against South Africa, as did George Benson.
Really? You’re going to cancel artists and stop enjoying their art over political differences? Let’s add a few more people to the list, then. Queen, Rod Stewart, Cher, Curtis Mayfield, the Beach Boys, the Village People, Tina Turner, Frank Sinatra, Millie Jackson, Ray Charles and Paul Simon all broke the cultural boycott against South Africa. Burn their records!
And let’s add The Guardian’s list of right-wingers in rock: Elvis Presley; Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet; Ted Nugent; the aforementioned Eric Clapton; 50 Cent, who supported George W Bush; Geri Halliwell, who said the Spice Girls were ‘true Thatcherites’; Kid Rock; Johnny Ramone; Phil Collins; and Ian Curtis of Joy Division.
Of course, there are far more artists who are insufferably left-wing. The rich ones in particular can be blissfully insulated from the plight of the working class, while preaching socialism and solidarity. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters comes to mind. So do Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, who are so woke they cancelled themselves.
There’s Bad Religion; Black Flag; The Clash; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; the Dropkick Murphys; Green Day; Jefferson Airplane; Midnight Oil; N.W.A.; Pearl Jam; Peter (the molester), Paul & Mary; Public Enemy; Rage Against the Machine; Bruce Springsteen; and U2. All of them are or were lefties to varying degrees of offensiveness.
We’d have to cancel Hitler’s favourite composer, Richard Wagner, of course. Or would we? Clemency Burton-Hill, writing for the BBC, isn’t so sure. Wagner was openly anti-Semitic, and few would dare perform Wagner in Israel today, but he was also a product of his times. And nobody can deny the outsized influence he had on music.
Shall we cancel Apocalypse Now, one of the most profound anti-war movies of all time, because it relies on Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in an iconic scene?
Shall we cancel 164 years’ worth of weddings, because the Bridal Chorus was composed by Wagner? Shall we cancel the people that got married to that march, because of their wilful and solemn association with a known bigot?
If I had to excise all the art, movies, books and music from my library made by people with skeletons in their closet, or who expressed political views that are unpalatable to me, there would hardly be anything left. You’d think Kumbaya would survive the purge, but no, even that has religious overtones of which I disapprove.
I guess there’s always Rush, although I doubt Fisher would approve of their politics.
Fisher suggests we hold artists to high standards and view them as role models. Well, that’s an obvious mistake. Many artists are assholes. Many are drunks and junkies. Many are crudely promiscuous. Many are openly misogynistic or crass and greedy.
One doesn’t have to like an artist to appreciate their art. One doesn’t have to agree with an artist to respect their work.
Yes, there are lines that artists should not cross. Serious crimes like rape, sexual assault, messing with minors, and murder should be among them. They should be career-enders, and they certainly make me view their work with a measure of revulsion.
But even then, violent criminals have produced some of the most striking, meaningful and influential art in the world. Some of that art forces us to confront the flaws and foibles of our own psyche. Some of it enables us to understand the mind of the artist or turns a light on the often-troubling social circumstances from which they emerged.
Without the art of these ‘deeply flawed’ people, the world would, intellectually and aesthetically, be a much poorer place.
Sometimes, cancelling is justified, but don’t be too rash. By all means, condemn the actions or criticise the views of an artist, but let their work speak for itself. As Fisher himself admits: ‘We demand too much from them if we expect them to be perfect in every way.’
We should expect artists to be imperfect. Perfect artists would also be perfectly boring.
- Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. As an independent researcher, he is the author of the recent report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) – South Africa’s Minibus Taxi Industry, Resistance to Formalisation and Innovation – which assesses the potential for innovation and modernisation in this vital transport sector.
- The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR. If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend.
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