Art & the Artist

When one crosses into immorality, can you separate the two?

Our society is going through vast changes in how we process immorality. This won’t be the first or last time this question comes up, but what happens when we love the cultural contribution of an individual and they turn out to be a bad person? How do we process this as a society and why can it be problematic? What are the power structures in play behind this that we can attempt to deconstruct to move forwards?

Let us look at people in powerful positions that have caused controversy recently, famous artists and producers such as Michael Jackson, Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly. Their allegations range over a vast period of time, from paedophilia to rape, in an abuse of their position at the top.

This isn’t an infrequent topic of discussion. Cultural upheaval on this scale is so shocking because it is omnipresent and infiltrates all aspects of our lives. There is a widespread awareness of the issue, but a widespread apathy in understanding how to approach it. I’ve had suggestions from friends ranging from ignorance, to not engaging or dancing when a song comes on, to enjoying the music but offsetting the moral issues by donating to a charity – everybody is trying to cope in a way that fits their own moral compass. Personally, I don’t think that once I am aware of an issue that I should still support that figure, but support can come in many ways.

We have a fundamental problem in our society where we will readily exchange morality for cultural capital. Celebrity culture can push people to a point of ultimate power that they become untouchable. From their place of influence, society is afraid to face or challenge behaviour in depth. When members of the audience at an R. Kelly concert were being interviewed about the criminal accusations he was facing, one man answered, “Well, Michael Jackson did it…” It’s only once that power – over society – begins to fade, that people begin to talk.

Jackson’s contribution to society as a musician is undeniable and overwhelming. He was the king of pop, and the evidence of him molesting underage children is comprehensive. People intentionally overlook this, and it’s important to not forget. If it was anybody else facing this evidence, there would have surely been a much wider public defamation, but his hold over culture is so total and complete that even now people choose to ignore this. He had a support system in place that would be incredulous in allowing him to sleep and groom young children. Now we face a difficult situation because he is also dead, and unable to face the storm that he has left in his wake. However, now that he is gone and his grip is loosening, people are beginning to ask questions. It’s only with the recent Leaving Neverland documentary that some traction has been gained. 

It is impossible to forget this man existed. Not just from a historical perspective, you can see the impact he has had on our music artists even today. I can’t deny that I love his music and grew up with him. Even after watching the documentary and feeling disgust, I found myself singing Beat It as I was making myself a coffee. He was an incredible musician, but we must remember that he was morally corrupt and abused his position of power to fulfil his fantasies – even his family have not denied this. It is important we don’t forget, because if we did, it’s possible that the negatives would fade, and history would remember him with a rose-tint rather than a zoom-lens. We must not forget him so that we can learn and change things for the future.

A question that arrives here, is that does the act of enjoying their art reinforce the individual’s place in society, reinforce their ability to create, and take the focus away from their morality? In some senses, the answer is yes to all of these. Cancel culture started to take hold when Spotify introduced the option for a mute button in early 2019. The feature was only rolled out on the mobile app, and is yet to hit desktop and web versions of the streaming service. The feature was controversial and hit with a lot of negativity, even though they were trying to make a statement and positive move forwards. In some ways, people are unsure of how to proceed, but sometimes they just want to look the other way.

Here we hit a serious problem in the fact that people are willing to look the other way and exchange cultural capital for a serious moral issue. Once an individual has behaved in this way, it recontextualises everything about them and their work, it should be impossible to look past. What we are really grieving here is ourselves. We grieve our ability to look the other way, to hold ourselves accountable for society’s issues and question them. We need to remind ourselves to look underneath, and to remove the possibility for this to keep happening.

Accountability is returning to the collective conscience – the #metoo movement which rose across the USA in a maelstrom of controversy has resulted in its first major conviction with Harvey Weinstein. The most important thing to try and address here is the balance of power between idol and society, to create safe spaces for people to talk out and address the issues. Weinstein marks an important step in this, because it means that people who are in an inevitably similar position to him are no longer untouchable.


Despite this, the #metoo movement has also been targeted as political correctness gone mad, over the top and “aggressive feminism”. Some argue that trial by media and the wider public can be toxic and unrelenting, so why not leave this to the criminal justice system? Well, the criminal justice system remains skewed against the victim. We need this intense movement from the public to make people realise how serious the issue is. Remember the rape case on an American college campus in 2015, where the rapist was a student and a strong swimmer in the university team? Even with this comparatively small amount of power that he held, the defendant argued the rape case could ruin his swimming career. On this much smaller scale, the potential cultural capital still overshadowed the moral issue.

The movement needs to happen across society, and outside of the judicial system. There is a pattern here, not just with the power plays, but with men at the top abusing them. The issue is that the conversation has always been started by the victims, and not by all the people that it doesn’t affect. I don’t think that Weinstein woke every day realising “I’m sexually abusive”, it’s a product of his behaviour, but did he ever think he was doing wrong? The conversation needs to be had with everyone, especially those who think it doesn’t concern them.

So what can we do? Could Spotify and streaming services put safeguards in place around artists? Could an abuse of power become an abuse of law? Ultimately stopping listening to Michael Jackson isn’t going to make the world a better place – what really needs to be addressed is the toxic culture which enables us to support these figures from a position of fear. Fear of power, fear of abuse and fear of our own morality.

Are we now looking at the breaking down of these power structures? We’ve definitely seen a paradigm shift recently, but alongside changing attitudes we need legislation and protection. Sometimes I feel weak, or afraid to look at hate directly in the face. But we need to speak about that, to try and understand, and try to overcome it. That’s how change will be instigated. Challenge what you can, when you can. The movement towards accountability and transparency is just beginning – we cannot be bystanders any longer.