There are few who dispute that Wagner was an influential, musical genius. His list of works include Die Walküre (which contains the "Ride of the Valkyries"), Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Tristan und Isolde. However, even with all of his musical talent, it's also pretty clear from the historical record that Wagner was an egotistical, anti-Semitic prick both in his comments and arguably in some of his compositions, with there being much debate over the content of Parsifal. So for some people, Wagner the person shades their judgment of Wagner the composer and they can't enjoy the music because of who wrote the music.
This sort of issue is not specific to just Wagner. In just the last year, arguments over how and whether the personal conduct of entertainers should influence the perception of their work has been at the center of more than a few controversies. At issue is how much separation should there be between an artist and their work? Is there a point that someone's conduct becomes so heinous that it becomes impossible to separate the two? Or should a work of art be judged solely on its own content and nothing else?
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And now to be certain, history is full of assholes and despicable people who've created great things in almost every field of human endeavors. James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for the discovery of the structure of DNA, has made some patently racist claims in the past, and Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel Prize for the development of modern PCR techniques, has made ridiculous claims denying climate change, ozone depletion, and the evidence that HIV causes AIDS. But, for the most part, you can separate their contributions to science from their own personal views.
But can you do that when we're talking about entertainment and art?
I thought this might make for an interesting topic after seeing the adaption of Ender's Game, which was released on home video last week. It's an adaption of Orson Scott Card's novel, which is a bestseller and won more than a few literary awards.
This is also an issue that comes to the forefront anytime director Roman Polanski is nominated for an Academy Award. No one can deny his talent as a director, with Rosemary's Baby (1968), Chinatown (1974) and The Pianist (2002). However, Polanski's drugging and rape of a 13-year old girl, and his subsequent fleeing to France has made the director controversial.
Around the same time, Jessica Hopper at the Village Voice published an extensive interview with writer Jim DeRogatis, who uncovered the information about Kelly while a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. The interview included copies of official documents from the 2002 indictment, which are graphic and unsettling. That caused a bit of a conversation about how Kelly has seemingly gotten a "pass" to the point he can still release an album from a major label, the racial implications of the case, and whether a “not guilty” verdict should be the beginning and end of it when it comes to an artist's perception in pop-culture.
The other aspect this touches on is consumer decisions as well as how far critics should consider such allegations when reviewing an artist's material. Pitchfork was criticized for their decision to have Kelly headline their music festival last summer. And many have argued that the allegations against Kelly are harder to separate from his music, since his sexuality is a selling point of his music.
DeRogatis has done a lot of thinking about not only why it's been so hard to bring R. Kelly to justice, but why the public has all but forgotten the terrible things Kelly has been accused of doing. His conclusion: "The saddest fact I've learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody."A similar situation exists with public perceptions of Chris Brown. Brown has been very successful as an R&B artist and actor. However, he's also known for very public disputes, legal problems, and most notably domestic violence against his on-again-off-again girlfriend Rihanna.
Hopper's interview with DeRogatis touches on a lot of interesting issues, about how knowledge of an artist's character colors their work, how misogyny and racism intersect to make Kelly's victims invisible, how hard it is generally to hold sexual predators accountable. But, most importantly, the Village Voice and Hopper give DeRogatis a chance to share how "stomach-churning" the multiple allegations against Kelly are. In addition to the famous video in which Kelly appears to be urinating on a 14-year-old girl, DeRogatis talks about various cases he reported on for the Sun-Times, including allegations that Kelly pushed teenage girls into group sex encounters, taped himself having sex with women without their knowledge, bullied a teenager into an abortion, and allegedly talked a young woman into recruiting her teenage friends to have sex with him. DeRogatis also suspects that Kelly and his supporters have intimidated some victims into silence. All of these stories are in the public record, but, much to DeRogatis's chagrin, they tend to be ignored by most other music critics and the public at large.
It's one thing for Rihanna or any other abused significant other to rationalize themselves into a "well he's really a good guy and he's going to do better" position, but when people looking at it objectively from the outside still lay out money for CDs or tracks on iTunes for someone that's an asshole, are they separating Chris Brown the person from Chris Brown the performer? Or do they just not care? And not only do people buy up his music, but there are fans of Brown that take to Twitter and Facebook to defend him and profess their desire to sleep with him. And you would think post-O.J., sensibilities about domestic violence would have changed to the point that being an Ike Turner wife-beater would doom a career.
Or have sensibilities not changed that much at all? And is Brown, as well as the other recent examples cited above, proof that people can separate a work of art from artist who's an asshole?
Brown, of course, was far from the first musician to face domestic-abuse allegations. James Brown, Rick James, Jackson Browne, and even John Lennon had histories of hitting women, and as Chris Brown’s endlessly loyal fanbase argues tirelessly, none of those artists’ reputations were irreparably damaged by their offenses. The difference between those artists and Brown, however, is that none of them seemed to wear their guilt as a defiant badge of honor—not even Ike Turner, rock’s great boogie man, who for as often as he changed his story over the years usually conveyed at least some sense of remorse. After failing to land his initial apology attempts following his 2009 arrest, though, Brown abandoned contrition altogether. Instead of distancing himself from the incident, he spit in the face of conventional P.R. wisdom by actually embracing it, going out of his way to remind his fans and the general public about it at every turn. The three albums he’s released since missing the Grammys that year are peppered with references to the assault and its fallout, many in the form of calls for sympathy, others in the form of cruel taunts directed toward the woman he clearly still blames for his near-downfall. If the pair of collaborations he released with Rihanna last year seemed similarly designed to rub the incident in the public’s face, then his reconciliation with Rihanna represented the culmination of his efforts to troll the world—the moment that Chris Brown, after years of not only surviving but prospering, truly won.