When Does Good Art By Awful People Become Untouchable?
Taking in the view at Polanski Station on the train to Cosbyville
In 2003 I physically destroyed four perfectly good music recordings with a hammer. Lots of us have joked about torching albums by artists we love to hate (Nickelback, Justin Bieber, and Kenny G spring to mind) but in this instance my decision to take a hammer to these four CDs had nothing to do with the quality of the music on them.
The artist in question was the French indie rock band Noir Désir. Formed in Bordeaux in the early eighties, the band reached its apogee in the early nighties as a sort of Gallic Pearl Jam, combining twangy, grungy guitars with a distinctly French folk sound and left-leaning politically charged lyrics. There was nothing to dislike about Noir Désir, from my perspective. Their music was rock-solid, their words were super smart, and their frontman Bertrand Cantat, with his Jon Bon Jovi-esque good looks and Joe Strummer rasp, seemed like a perfectly likeable guy.
That is until one night in 2003 when I learned that Cantat had been arrested for beating his girlfriend (the actress Marie Trintignant) to death in a drunken rage in a hotel room in Lithuania. The news made me feel physically sick, and without even thinking it through I solemnly destroyed all the Noir Désir albums I owned. It wasn’t enough to simply pitch the CDs in the trash. I felt the need to physically obliterate the objects.
I was recently reminded of that day in 2003 when I read of the recent sealing of Bill Cosby’s fate in a Pennsylvania courtroom. While the erstwhile Cosby Show star has, to the best of anybody’s knowledge, never killed another human being, his now self-evident status as a serial rapist strikes me as another fairly clear-cut case of a person whose behaviour has made his art completely radioactive. Like Noir Désir’s once thoroughly likeable albums, Cosby’s prodigious TV, film, and stand-up performances have been rendered 100 percent unwatchable — for me as well as for everybody I’ve talked to about this. It simply wouldn’t occur to me to watch The Cosby Show or any of his standup. Any possibility of enjoying it appears to have been erased.
But if Cosby and Bertrand Cantat are now — and probably forever — beyond the pale, what about Roman Polanski, who together with Cosby was ejected from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in May of this year? I confess that I watched Polanski’s 2002 masterpiece The Pianist knowing full well that its director was a convicted child rapist who continues to flout US law, and I thoroughly enjoyed it — albeit not without a modicum of discomfort. While I haven’t watched a Polanski film since The Pianist, I’m not altogether sure I never would again. Some of his output is terrible and frankly misogynistic (the 1992 film Bitter Moon for one) but Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are masterpieces, although the latter, which involves a fictionalized Mulholland Drive and his pal Jack Nicholson (in whose house the sexual assault of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey was committed), now feels like a particularly poor taste choice of film — even by Polanski standards.
And then there’s my record collection. While now cleansed of Noir Désir and anything else that Bertrand Cantat has touched, it’s still replete with artists with no shortage of skeletons in their closets. The one that’s proven toughest for me to swallow has always been Led Zeppelin. Led Zep was already dinosaur rock by the time I started listening to music in any serious way, but it was Zeppelin more than any other band (with some help from Nirvana, Ministry, and others) that got me through the darkest, most angst-ridden days of my adolescence. Even now no rock band touches Zeppelin when it comes to pulling my heartstrings and making feel teary-eyed with autumnal yearning.
It would be many years later than I would learn of the sordid story of Lori Maddox, the 14-year-old groupie who Led Zep guitarist Jimmy Page kidnapped and, on occasion, kept confined in a locked room anytime they were “seeing” one other. It was around the same time that I learned that one of my other heroes, David Bowie, who deflowered Lori Maddox in the first place. Was I a hypocrite for expunging Noir Désir but not Bowie or Zeppelin? And what of John Lennon, James Brown, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Sid Vicious, Ozzy Osbourne, Rick James, Dr. Dre, Tupac, and other music legends who have famously behaved reprehensively towards women? That’s a lot of music to destroy.
In many ways I’m thankful that I came of age during the 1990s, an epoch synonymous with emotionally vulnerable grunge boys, take-no-prisoners Riot Grrls, and the Lilith Fair phenomenon. I more or less missed the hair metal window of the 1980s, a genre that will forever be associated in my brain with the bullies a few grades ahead of me, and as such never had to call into question my possession of Mötley Crüe albums, as I never owned any. But let’s be honest: is Flava Flav really any more laudable than Tommy Lee? Entertainment-wise yes, but personality-wise probably not.
And then there’s my book collection. There’s good ol’ William Burroughs, who shot his wife in the notorious game of William Tell in a Mexico City hotel room. There’s Hunter S. Thompson, who sexually assaulted women at his cabin in Colorado. How about the legendarily creepy J.D. Salinger and the spectacularly misogynistic Charles Dickens? What am I to do with fascist nut-jobs like Yukio Mishima and Ezra Pound on my shelves? Who’s left at the end of the day? Jane Austen and Haruki Murakami?
Unless there’s dirt on those two that I’m not aware of, I think they’re safe — together with a record collection whittled down to Deltron 3030, Ani DiFranco, Rollins Band, and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, who are all to the best of my knowledge still safe to listen to.
How long does “too soon” last?
Amid the murky business of deciding whether or not an artist’s work is untouchable based on his or her (well, let’s face it, it’s pretty much always “his”) character, one thing is for certain: it matters how recent the inexcusable acts were committed. When it comes to irradiating the artistic output of toxic individuals, time does indeed appear to be the great healer, or perhaps the great concealer.
In the case of Bill Cosby the ink is barely dry on the news coverage of his recent trial, and the wounds the man has inflicted have barely begun healing. The words “too soon” don’t even begin to describe it. Likewise, Bertrand Cantat’s homicidal outburst is recent enough that I’m still not ready to rehabilitate Noir Désir even though guitarist Serge Teyssot-Gay, bassist Jean-Paul Roy, and drummer Denis Barthe have never — to the best of my knowledge — done anything to warrant the world’s opprobrium. These guys have all gone on to do great material under other banners (especially Teyssot-Gay, whose Arab-influenced experimental rock duo InterZone with Syrian-born oud player Khaled AlJaramani is well worth investigating), but the original band is still far too synonymous with Cantat — and it’s still far too soon for me to enjoy the man’s music.
How long does the “too soon” taboo last? In some cases it has a very long tail indeed. In Israel, for example, the music of German composer Richard Wagner, whose antisemitic views and the Aryanist themes embodied in his operatic works made him the compositeur-du-jour for Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, is still deeply stigmatized, and even now, 135 years after the composer’s death and a full 80 years after Kristallnacht, attempts to perform his music in the Jewish state have been met with angry protests. However, it is perhaps a sign of maturation within the Israeli arts community that the Wagner taboo is being publicly called into question, and even challenged, with some (notably Israeli conductor Asher Fisch) arguing that rehabilitating Wagner in Israel would represent a final victory over Hitler.
Clearly the further back into history one goes, the less clear the picture becomes. Wagner was without doubt beholden to antisemitic views (he reportedly blamed “the Jews” for early career setbacks), but these views were hardly atypical for his time and cultural milieu, and as some historians have pointed out his political views were much more anarchistic and libertarian than they were fascistic. Moreover, the composer’s fans have long run the gamut and even included many notable Jewish intellectuals and cultural figures, most notably Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern political Zionist movement. It’s all rather complicated.
Wagner was clearly not a nice person. In addition to being a racist and an antisemite he was also, by the sounds of it, a manipulative narcissist and a nightmare of a domestic partner. But if one were to cleanse the cannon of classical music from antisocial and emotionally abusive types, we would also lose the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann (Robert that is, not his long-suffering but equally talented wife Clara), and Hector Berlioz (who apparently plotted to murder his ex-fiancée). And those are the ones we know about. Had Bach, Schubert, Lizst, or Brahms lived at a time in which public figures were scrutinized by social media, I’m sure plenty of unflattering business would be known about them.
The case for watching/reading/listening to whatever the hell you want
If we can now safely partition the likes of Richard Wagner into personality and artistic output, is the same true for, say, Miles Davis? In certain ways they represent similar figures. Both were polarizing and transformative musical figures during their lifetime. Both inspired a certain mystique around themselves that captivates to this day. And both were, to put it mildly, total douchebags. Whereas Wagner was an angry racist, Davis was a violent misogynist who routinely beat his wives and reputedly pimped out several prostitutes during his drug-addled “retirement” in the late-1970s. He was, in the words of actor Don Cheadle who portrayed the late jazz trumpeter in the 2015 biopic Miles Ahead, the “original gangsta”.
Sadly, Davis is just one of many artistic legends who were also violent misogynists. Jerry Lee Lewis has been married seven times and, according to journalist Richard Ben Cramer, may have been responsible for the death of his fifth wife Shawn Stephens in 1983. Elvis Presley’s obsession with adolescent girls was well attested. “Godfather of Soul” James Brown’s musical legacy will forever be tainted by the man’s horrifying history of domestic violence, as well as his alleged rape of publicist Jacque Hollander in 1988. On the literary front, Norman Mailer, who stabbed his wife nearly to death with a pen-knife at a party in 1960, remains a celebrated figure, as does alleged serial rapist Arthur Koestler. And then there’s the poster-boy for toxic masculinity, Pablo Picasso, a man for whom cruelty to the women in his life appeared to be a primary wellspring of his artistic inspiration.
So what are we to do with these awful men who occupy outsized roles in cultural tapestry? Some, including Esquire senior culture editor Tyler Coates, have argued that we as a culture ought to take a decisive step in turning our back on art created by bad people, asserting that “there’s a lot of art in the world, and most of it is expendable,” and that there is no particular need to revisit the films of Polanski, Woody Allen, and others given everything we now know about their private lives. New York Times writer Amanda Hess goes a step further, arguing that the oft-described exercise of “separating the art from the artist” merely contributes to the critical acclaim and economic clout that facilitated the abusive behaviour in the first place.
In a way I sympathize with this stance. Currently I have no desire to sit through a Woody Allen film given everything we now know about him (I never particularly liked the guy’s work to begin with), nor do I feel any desire to revisit any of Louis C.K.’s work. I would probably still watch The Usual Suspects (still one of my all-time favourite films) despite the recent revelations about Kevin Spacey (Does it help that he plays a bad guy in the movie?) but I probably wouldn’t watch House of Cards anymore. Suffice it to say I would definitely NOT subject myself to Cosby Show reruns, and given the current zeitgeist I probably wouldn’t rush out to see a new Polanski film. And since we’re talking about terrible people making great art, even though I remain a huge fan of the Naked Gun films there will forever be something a little unsettling about the presence of Frank Drebin’s hapless sidekick Officer Nordberg, portrayed with disturbing comic brilliance by O.J. Simpson — along of course with Elvis’ erstwhile child bride Priscilla.
The problem, however, with banishing art by bad people isn’t that there’s a dearth of good art by good people out there. It’s that the art created by famous monsters like Picasso, Wagner, Miles Davis, and Woody Allen cannot simply be excised from our culture. Pick a “good” artist, somebody known for being a decent human being, and look at their seminal influences, and you’ll quickly find a noxious figure we’d just as soon be rid of. Anton Bruckner was as genteel a man as there ever was, but his work stemmed overwhelmingly from Wagnerian influence. Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat and Fugazi fame) are both obnoxiously decent human beings, but the boy-scoutish hardcore punk they pioneered in the 1980s took its cue from badly behaved icons like Sid Vicious and Ozzy Osbourne. Without the coked-up misogyny of the eighties hair metal craze there would have been no Riot Grrl backlash. These monsters are simply part of who we are.
Beyond that, why should we be forced to go without the art bequeathed to us by awful people? I would argue that the world is a largely better place thanks to the works of Charles Dickens, even though the man himself was a giant dick. More cautiously I would assert that The Pianist is an important films that captures the very essence of humanity amid modern history’s biggest horror shows, and that we are better off for its having been made. Yes, Roman Polanski is a rapist. But he is also a Holocaust survivor who, as a director, was perhaps uniquely positioned to tell these particular stories. This is not an argument for the man’s rehabilitation. It’s an argument for taking what’s of value from his output while kicking the man down the stairs.
The problem, I would argue, is that we have a very hard time not lionizing our artists. Most of us have no trouble acknowledging good/bad dichotomies when it comes to politicians, business leaders, and even athletes. Lyndon Johnson was a vulgar philanderer who further plunged the United States into a pointless, unwinnable war, AND did more to further the cause of civil rights than any American president since Lincoln. W.L. Mackenzie King was arguably Canada’s greatest prime minister for his shrewd leadership through the Great Depression and the Second World War, but was also being a racist and antisemite who aided and abetted the Holocaust by turning away Jewish refugees, all the while ensuring the immiseration of generations of Indigenous Canadians through the Indian Residential School system. Ty Cobb was a bad-tempered racist whose animosity towards African Americans was legendary even for a southern white man of his era, but none would question his status as one of baseball’s all-time greatest hitters.
Why do we have such a hard time making similar distinctions when it comes to celebrated artists like Picasso, Elvis, and Polanski? I suspect that our habit of deifying artists and celebrities hearkens to our basic tribal nature, which leads us to either make excuses for (or simply cover up) egregious behaviour on the part of the central figure of adulation until said behaviour reaches the proverbial tipping point, be it during or after the person’s lifetime. Most of us adhere to one or another “category” of art, literature, or music that we love, and these tribal affiliations come bundled with a coterie of venerated figures who we are loathe to see defenestrated. I confess I still feel that way about Led Zeppelin — I still struggle to square my love of the band with what I now know about certain members’ past sins. I don’t imagine I will ever stop listening to their albums, but I certainly no longer regard them as “rock gods.” Being an atheist not only means disbelieving in the gods of organized religion, but also culturally manufactured deities like Elvis, Ozzy, Tupac etc.
I also feel a knee-jerk antagonism towards anybody who tells me I “can’t” watch a film or read a book or listen to an album by somebody known to be a jerk. I have no particular tribal attachment to Polanski or almost any of the other artists mentioned here, but my fundamental anti-authoritarianism makes me want to immediately go out and do what the public is telling me not to do. That, too, is basic human nature. To this I say, go ahead and watch/listen to/read whatever the hell you want. You know you’re going to do it anyway. But don’t be a dick and keep a balanced perspective on the artists in question. We are the inheritors of millennia of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other cultural viruses that we are trying to expunge. Chances are that male rock star/male author/male director you so adore has some creepy shit in their closet.
Expunging art created by “undesirables” from the broader cultural fabric never works, and never will. The Nazis tried it with Jewish artists and intellectuals like Spinoza and Mendelssohn. Mao and his cadres did their damnedest to obliterate the totality of pre-1949 Chinese culture. So let’s not try. On the other hand, let’s not turn our artists into unassailable heroes. And let’s try to seek out a more diverse array of voices, be them riot grrl bands, queer punk artists, black metalheads, Asian rappers, and other against-the-grain creatives. Because this is where the true suppression has been, and continues to be.
Let us just use our brains, figure out what we like, be real about it, and run with it. But Bertrand Cantat can still go fuck himself. Still too soon.