Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Separating the Art From the Artist

Despite the tabloids’ best efforts, it appears that the general public’s interest in Michael Jackson’s death has pretty much run its course. Although Jackson’s musical and cultural influence had been on the wane for the last few years, mainly thanks to his self-imposed semi-exile to exotic lands, his passing brought back a lot of feelings from both pro- and anti-Jackson camps in the US.

To his fans, Jackson was a musical genius and one of the best entertainers the world has ever seen. There are a lot of people, though, for whom Jackson’s tumultuous personal life, especially his alleged involvement with young children, outweighs anything he did on stage or in the recording studio.


Although he was never convicted of molestation, having settled one case out of court and been acquitted on another, to his detractors Jackson was worse than a weirdo, he was a pervert and a scumbag. The venom spat at Jackson’s legacy on TV and over the Internet is yet another example of something any culture must do with its actors, writers, painters, musicians, etc. – that is, the sometimes messy accounting of artistic accomplishment with questionable, offensive, or illegal behavior. There is a line that separates artists whose bad behavior is excused as the after-effects or unfortunate by-products of genius from those whose work can’t or shouldn’t be appreciated due to their personal lives, and taking a cursory survey of modern American entertainers, that line isn’t hard to find.

When it comes to artists and celebrities, the American public has a high tolerance for certain activities like excessive drinking, drug use, or anti-social behavior. Alcohol and illegal drugs are a way of life for too many artists and entertainers to list here. (This is especially true in music, where just about every genre or movement has some kind of drug associated with it.) For artists of all kinds, the risk of dying from reckless behavior is much bigger than the risk of public scorn, and even ending up in the morgue can sometimes add to the mystique, especially to future generations.

Even drug dealing, an activity that would quickly land most people in jail, is not necessarily a barrier to fame and success. This was the case with Easy E from the legendary rap group N.W.A., who financed the group’s first album “Straight Outta Compton” with money from his drug deals. In 1978, comedian Tim Allen pled guilty to cocaine possession, an offense which could have gotten him life in prison if he hadn’t cut a deal that involved giving the police names of other dealers in exchange for a reduced sentence. Yet he went on to make a fortune playing the bumbling dad in a highly successful sitcom and starring in family-friendly movies like The Santa Clause.

Up to a point, violent, bullying, or anti-social behavior can enhance an artist’s “street cred,” especially if that artist is male. Actor and singer Frank Sinatra regularly consorted with organized crime figures, which did a lot to give a tough-guy edge to the pop crooner. General surliness hasn’t exactly helped the careers of people like Sean Penn and Russell Crowe, but they haven’t hurt, either. Some TV “reality” show stars like Omarosa have made careers out of being unpleasant. As long as the negative vibes are directed toward paparazzi, low-level assistants, hotel clerks, and the like, an artist or celebrity can get a lot of mileage out of their disagreeableness. When people with influence begin to label someone as “difficult,” however, it can be a different story, especially when it comes to financial considerations. The general rule is that being a pain in the ass to work with is tolerated as long as the public keeps buying tickets to see you or your work.

The preceding offenses, regardless of their true legal standing, are the “misdemeanors” in the unofficial laws of artistic career endangerment. When committed, there’s a good chance the offender can recover via contrition, therapy, or an extended vacation from public life. The “felonies,” though, are different. These are transgressions that, once becoming publicly known, can cause an artist serious career damage, no matter how talented or accomplished he or she is.

There are three board categories of potential career-killers:

Religion: Few things raise the ire of Mainstream America® than an artist openly criticizing a religion, especially Christianity. This subject is such a minefield that few artists have even dared approach the subject in a wide forum. Perhaps the most famous recent example of what happens when that line is crossed is when ‘80s pop singer Sinéad O’Connor finished a performance on Saturday Night Live by ripping up a picture of the Pope on stage, an act which pretty much ended her career in the United States before she left the building. When director Kevin Smith released his film Dogma, a religious satire that took a lot of shots at the Catholic faith, he received over 300,000 letters of protest, including death threats. There was also controversy with the film’s distributor Disney, who, after being attacked as “anti-Catholic” by the Catholic League, ultimately bailed out and sold the film to Lion’s Gate.

Artists can also go too far in the other direction, where espousing their religious leanings can become too much for co-workers or the general public. Such is the case with Tom Cruise, formerly one of the most bankable movie stars ever, whose light started to dim when he began going full-on with his enthusiastic support of Scientology. Since his public campaign began in the mid-2000’s, Cruise’s A-list mystique has been slowly replaced by TMZ-type weirdness, and a corresponding decrease in starring roles.

Racism and Anti-Semitism: There are lots of racists out there, but most of them (especially if they work in the mass communication industry) have the sense to keep it to themselves. Those that don’t pay a steep price. As any student of American film history knows, D. W. Griffith, through his shooting and editing artistry, helped create the basic language of the action movies of today. But he also created Birth of a Nation, a movie that today would be routinely celebrated as the one of the first feature-length films ever made if it wasn’t also unashamed in its racist depiction of African-Americans and heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. If he didn’t make this movie (which was hugely successful when it was released despite causing riots in some cites where it was shown), Griffith’s name would be consistently mentioned with the all-time greats of early movie making (Chaplin, The Warner Brothers, Sturges ,et. al.) instead of the “Yes, but...” qualifiers that accompany most discussions of him.

Leni Riefenstahl is considered to be one of the most innovative European film makers of the early to mid-20th century. But one of her masterpieces is Triumph of The Will, a brilliantly shot and edited propaganda documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Although there are no direct anti-Semitic remarks in the film, the act of showcasing Nazis was enough to guarantee Riefenstahl’s career will probably always be talked about in the context of this one film.

Until 2006, Mel Gibson was a certified A-list movie star, one of the sexiest men on earth, and an extremely successful director and producer. After 2006 he also developed a reputation for being a raging anti-Semitic jackass because of comments he made to police officers after being pulled over for drunk driving. Also, his film The Passion of the Christ, an ultraviolent retelling of Jesus’ crucifixion which some critics say contains anti-Semitic imagery and overtones, while enrapturing certain audiences, alienated many others. Like fellow mega-star Cruise, Gibson’s output has slowed considerably slowed since these events.

Michael Richards, who played Cosmo Cramer on the series Seinfeld, pretty much just had to spend the rest of his life coasting on the work he did during that show’s hugely successful run, but a racist outburst at a comedy club that was captured on video and spread around the Internet pretty much guarantees he will never get back to the regard he once enjoyed.

Domestic and Child Abuse: Revelations (or even suspicions) of physical or sexual abuse on the part of an artist or entertainer can permanently reshape their careers for the worse. Perhaps the most famous example of physical abuse on the part of an artist is 1940’s actress Joan Crawford, whose memory and accomplishments must compete with her daughter Cristina’s accounts of domestic violence in her book (later movie) Mommie Dearest. Today the filmed version of Cristina’s account of her mother’s behavior is more well-known than classics like Mildred Pierce that made Crawford famous in the first place. There is still some doubt over the veracity of the charges, but it’s enough to keep Crawford, one of the biggest stars of her time, off of the podium of actresses who represent Hollywood’s Golden Age, like Greta Garbo and Bette Davis.

Musician and producer Ike Turner is considered to be one of the founders of Rock and Roll. But he is better known for beating up on Tina, one of his five former wives, who went on to became a star in her own right and whose experiences with Ike were depicted in the film What’s Love Got to Do With It. Recently American R&B singer Chris Brown is now better known more for abusing his girlfriend Rihanna than his music.

Michal Jackson is not the only talented and respected artist to suffer public scorn for inappropriate relationships with minors. Roman Polanski, an Academy-Award winning film director who helmed Chinatown, was arrested in the 1970s for having sex with a 13 year old. He subsequently fled to France, and still cannot travel to the US or a country with a strong extradition treaty with the US for fear of arrest.

Recently, American R&B singer R. Kelly has had to answer for engaging in sexual acts with an underage girl. Although he was eventually acquitted of the charges, I think it’s safe to say he won’t be seeing many endorsement deals or invites to charity functions come his way anytime soon.

These are a few examples of creative professionals whose work is experienced the context of aberrant behavior. The question is, is it fair to be labeled this way? At what point must one disregard someone’s artistic achievements because the artist also did creepy, objectionable or evil things? And is it retroactive? Would you throw away the copy of your favorite movie if next week you found out the director beats his wife, or the lead actress supports neo-Nazi groups? Would you stop listening to a musician if you found out they were convicted of possessing child pornography?

In the case of crimes that affect another person, it might be appropriate to ask the victims. But in most cases, these are questions that any consumer of artistic work must answer for themselves. This is probably the best option, as time goes on and the memory of the person fades while the work endures.

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