The HBO documentary Leaving Neverland recently made its splash in the culture, telling the stories of two men who were sexually abused by Michael Jackson as young children. It was not really a revelation; reasonable people have suspected that Jackson was a pedophile for decades. But the documentary stands as a vivid confirmation of those old suspicions. There are still MJ groupies out there who, demonstrating why predators sometimes succeed in victimizing children despite flagrant warning signs, huff that you can’t just assume Michael Jackson was abusing all those little boys he lured into his bed. Everyone else is facing the truth. So we have begun – too late, but better than never – our cultural reckoning of the fact that the King of Pop was a monster.
Many fruitful, if unhappy, avenues of discussion might be opened, not least how parents can so thoroughly fail to protect their children. Our normal focus on culture, however, leads us down another road. Michael Jackson is gone, but his music is still here. As we see with increasing clarity who Michael Jackson was and what he did, should we continue to listen to his songs?
This relates back to a larger question, and a larger debate: How much can – or should – we separate an artist from his art? There are no definitive answers; at least, I don’t have them. But there are several considerations that will clear our thinking and aid our decisions.
First, does enjoying the art fuel the wealth, celebrity, or power of the artist? A more targeted version of the question: Does it fuel the wealth, celebrity, or power of the artist in a way that enables his abuses? For example, Bill Cosby might get a little richer if networks played reruns of The Cosby Show, but he would be no more likely to assault another woman. But it might have been argued, twenty years ago, that because Jackson used his fame and money to manipulate his victims, contributing to either would be wrong.
Second, what is the nature and severity of the offense? Very few people would discard a book or song or movie because the creator was an alcoholic. But alcoholism, as terrible as it is, is in another category than the predations of abusers.
Third, how closely did the artist associate himself with his art? Some artists – generally those whose art is essentially performative, but writers have done it, too – craft a persona, wed it to their art, and sell the whole package to the public. If your celebrity is anchored to yourself as much as your work, there is cognitive dissonance and probably some shamelessness in instructing people to take your art by itself. Michael Jackson’s self-presentation was always bizarre; now it seems sinister. There is, too, self-reference in much art, including Jackson’s “Scream”. Such reference can, with greater knowledge, be intolerable.
Good art is often made by bad people. This is a revelation to no one. We have all enjoyed art while knowing, or at least suspecting, that the creator was a bad person. Maybe, then, the real debate is not at all abstract; we all agree that sometimes you should separate art and artist, because we all sometimes have. Maybe the real debate is all about particulars: Should we separate this artist from this art?
It can be hard, especially when the artist abused children.