Separating the art from the artiste

Deccan Chronicle.  | Suresh Subrahmanyan

Nation, Current Affairs

Jackson counted among his friends, the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Nelson Mandela and Bubbles, the chimp, a star in some of MJ’s music videos.

Michael Jackson

Alas, poor Michael Jackson! They won’t even let his soul rest in peace. The baby face of the original sibling band, The Jackson 5, who went on to become a mega star, and over the decades, morphing from child to boy to androgynous man, a dancer whose steps defied definition and gravity, continues to dominate the conversation. Witness HBO’s recently released documentary film, ‘Leaving Neverland’, a two-part miniseries in which allegations of child abuse against the pop star surfaced once again, covering familiar, murky terrain on the purveyor of such hits as Thriller, Billie Jean and Man in the Mirror. Jackson counted among his friends, the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Nelson Mandela and Bubbles, the chimp, a star in some of MJ’s music videos.

‘Leaving Neverland’ features two men who testify that MJ abused them in his sprawling Neverland ranch in California. Retribution was swift. Jackson’s music was summarily taken off the airwaves in many countries including Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands. Apparently, they were merely responding to listeners’ disenchantment and consequent reluctance to encourage the music of an artiste accused of paedophilia. The general view being that, while not wishing to be judgmental the stations need to be mindful of audience sentiment. Unsurprisingly, the Jackson family are up in arms, threatening action against the film maker.

Now here’s the thing. Everyone is on the same page when it comes to looking fiercely askance at the kind of deviant behavior the late Moonwalk sensation was accused of. In particular, to the families who have been deeply and personally affected, and indeed, to all right thinking folks. And it hardly helps that many of his major hits point, probably inadvertently, to his own fall from grace. These song titles could be read with double entendre writ large. The songs themselves are lyrically innocent enough, but those levelling dark charges at the artist will smirk at the unintended puns.

I’m bad, I’m bad is virtually a public admission of guilt, at least in the eyes of many. Dangerous - yes Michael, we know that now. Do you know where your children are? No Michael, we don’t know where they are. In your Neverland estate, perhaps? Monster - tell me about it! Smooth Criminal - stating the bleeding obvious, Behind the mask - the real face unmasked, Another part of me - we cottoned on to it too late, In the closet - did you ever come out of it?

The point about Michael Jackson’s allegedly insidious character and the contrasting wonder and brilliance of much of his musical oeuvre throws up an interesting point of debate. Does a person’s art deserve to be vilified on the grounds that he or she had a shady past? I realise it’s a highly emotive subject and one that different people may look at differently. That said, in the larger scheme of things and over a passage of time, posterity will tend to draw a line between Michael Jackson the musician and Michael Jackson the alleged child abuser. While he is no more, his body of work cannot be erased, and he will go down in pop music history as one of its greats, alongside Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Madonna. That just happens to be a matter of fact and need not be mixed up with his alleged personal proclivities. The individual and his or her art are mutually exclusive entities.

We have umpteen examples of world leaders, artistes and sports personalities across categories who will bear testimony to this tenet. Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, John Travolta, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Roman Polanski, Oscar Wilde, Errol Flynn, George Best, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Mike Tyson, Britney Spears and several more have all been charged and many found guilty of crimes ranging from sexual misconduct, child abuse and domestic violence. Most of these names come from the west where such crimes are duly recorded in the public domain. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are today highly respected for their intellect and the value they bring to society.

 The brilliant 16th century Italian painter Caravaggio, was charged with homoeroticism and murder but no one called for his paintings to be destroyed despite his canvasses Victorious Cupid and St John the Baptist portraying a naked, pre-pubescent boy, an assistant with whom Caravaggio is believed to have had carnal relations. Au contraire, they are considered masterpieces. We accept Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland without batting an eyelid though we now know that he took photographs of nude girls. ‘The Sower’, a sculpture by Eric Gill that employs the act of sowing as a metaphor for broadcasting, forms part of the art treasures at the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. This despite the fact that Gill was found to have abused his daughters, had sex with his sister and with his dog! When ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov was first released in the early 1950s, it was received in equal measure with critical acclaim and revulsion. Revulsion won out as calls for the book’s ban was upheld in Britain. Today it is viewed as a literaryclassic.

Here in India, the ‘Me Too’ scandal stole the headlines recently. Accusing fingers were pointed at film stars, politicians, musicians et al. Even in conservative Chennai, The Music Academy axed a clutch of artistes from their list of performers on allegations of misconduct. That is now already a distant and fading memory. As far as one can tell, these ‘tainted’ musicians are performing without let or hindrance in various parts of the country and the world. Life goes on.

Noted British art critic Jonathan Jones got it down pat, ‘Demonising the art is not a rational response to it. There is no way that you should punish the art for the crimes of the artist. A civilised society preserves art and tries to learn from it.’ As I conclude, MJ’s melodious Heal the World is playing on my CD player.