The other day my somewhat young friend shared some of the things they’d been turning over in their mind and in the process, infected me with a word virus that left me turning it over in my own mind.
I was thinking about Elvis Presley and his child brides. I don’t know why it fucked me up so much but I had no idea Elvis Presley was such a terrible and abusive person. I’m not even a fan of him, I had just never heard anything negative.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about the artists that I do know are bad people and if supporting their work is wrong to do. I’m stuck between knowing that a lot of artists are very tortured and make beautiful things despite of who they are.
Many people have had giant cultural influences who are just shitty to the people in their lives. What is the cut off of abuse that I can support? Would I buy the music of someone who murdered their child, or the painting of someone who abused their wife? Where is the balance of valuing art and human life?
Which if you didn’t know already, Elvis liked young girls. He started a relationship with his future wife Priscilla when she was 14, because that was his type.
It seems to have been pathological, and if there’s any mitigation of Elvis, it’s that: he was less a sexual predator than a flawed human being, entirely too close to his mother, incapable of normal sexual relationships. But for someone who ended up having teenage girls engage in group ‘sex’ with him and who fed teenage girls pills to keep them up all night before they went to middle school the next day, that doesn’t mitigate much. So let’s be sure not to call it a defense; let’s call it an explanation.
Elvis Presley is far from the only person for which this is true.
David Bowie died this year, and that was the cause for an interrogation of his life including statutory rape admissions and a violent sexual assault allegation.
What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Does the ‘R’ in R. Kelly stand for ‘rapist‘? Is it OK to laugh at that Chappelle Show sketch about it? Speaking of which, Rick James kidnapped, sexually abused, and tortured a young woman for three days in his home, including burning her repeatedly with a crack pipe.
Can we laugh with such people? At them? Can we enjoy music or movies or other art created by horrid people?
Unlike David Bowie, some of these people seem to have no real redeeming personal qualities; there are abusers who have seemingly never showed any contrition or even stopped their abusive behavior. Some of these people are dead, but others continue to produce new works.
What do you continue to support financially? Does it matter if you are enriching the estates of the people who behaved so despicably? If you can obtain them for free, does that strike a blow against injustice or are you still morally accountable for enjoying it?
* * *
Almost everyone now would agree that the ivory trade is illegal and its effect on the elephant population is repugnant. I wouldn’t poach and elephant for its tusks; I would never buy an ivory piano with ivory keys. I wouldn’t pay to go see a concert where the piano they used was brand new and used ivory keys if I knew about it, which is part of why activism is intentionally annoying: to ensure it gets your attention so you have to make that choice. But if it was an antique piano someone was playing? Well, maybe that encourages the trade by making the sound of the keys desirable, so no. But then why shouldn’t that apply to every song with a piano in it recorded prior to 1960 or so?
If you say stopping the ivory trade is important and the immorality of its acquisition taints all of the beauty it may be used to create, how can you enjoy any music that required the suffering of noble animals to create?
That’s just one issue. What if you have several?
* * *
I keep coming back to William Lloyd Garrison and his answer to whether voting, with its inherent compromises and moral contradictions, was sinful. ‘Sin for me‘ was the only answer he’d give. He was a prophet who had a message, but coercion to his vision was never part of it.
You’re the one who has to live with yourself and probably explain yourself to other people, so consistency is important to getting other people to understand and respect your beliefs, and that is really, really hard. It can be a little fuzzy, it’s always changing, but if you can’t listen to The Beatles because John Lennon was abusive to women, it’s going to be tough to justify enjoying Ghostbusters or watching sports. The Phoenix Mercury employs Brittney Griner. How can you enjoy watching her play basketball after her relationship with her wife?
I haven’t even touched on racism or homophobia.
Whatever line you draw, you’ve got to do it at a place where vast swaths of the human race, including the past, are not excluded unless you want to close yourself off to the vast majority of the human experience.
With stupendous effort, religious Puritans might be able to create a zone wherein none of their morals are ever compromised or involve people with compromised morals, but at that point, the artistic work is ancillary to its moral evaluation.
* * *
I’ve come back to George Orwell’s Benefit of Clergy before, and I’m sure I’ll do it again, but his evaluation of the disgusting human being and talented artist Salvadore Dali seems as well stated as anything he wrote, and I’m again sorry he didn’t survive to read and review works and artists of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s:
If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear. And, after all, the worst crimes are not always the punishable ones. By encouraging necrophilic reveries one probably does quite as much harm as by, say, picking pockets at the races. One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other. The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.
My moral indignation usually does not rise quite to Orwell’s level, but I’ve felt the same thing about Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, expressed in a different medium.
I don’t know if I’d consider it a classic or if there’s any real value to it any more than there’s value in a Michael Bay film.
It’s an impressive achievement, and it’s formally beautiful, but does it justify its existence?
I read an essay once about a read saying that if there were a book all about someone who was obsessed with chopping off dicks, it wouldn’t matter how gorgeous the prose was: no one would assign it. But because it’s about lusting after and raping a young girl, we can call it literature.
If the book were about someone’s fucked up mind and castration fetish, it would be assumed to be a work of feminist propaganda, the author couldn’t dodge by saying, ‘It’s just a subject I was interested in for no reason‘, and I can almost guarantee it wouldn’t even be widely read.
I enjoyed the book, but the prose of John Updike’s Brazil is at least as wonderful, and that has a plot that’s a complete mess. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is even showier and full of purple passages, and there’s no child rape in that, either.
A Clockwork Orange has all kinds of horrendous shit that its protagonist does and witnesses and endures, but there’s like, you know, a point to it. There’s a reason for it happening and Anthony Burgess has a message. If you take issue with how necessary all of it was to achieve the desired effect, sure, but that’s a different argument to be had.
It’s my assertion that if Lolita were about a subject other than an adult man being attracted to a child and forcing her to have sex with him, it wouldn’t be widely read today. This is supposedly incidental to the creation of the book, it’s central to its endurance, like Victorians looking at naked statues and paintings but saying they were appreciating them as classical Greek culture.
So I don’t think Lolita should be banned, but I also don’t see a compelling argument that it should be read by anyone.
In addition, I’d like to think that if a book were really well-written and had a point to it, I’d read and enjoy a plot about a protagonist who went around castrating men like King David winning the hand of his first wife in marriage. I think I even could enjoy a creative work by someone like Lorena Bobbitt. But this still is not a fair comparison because people like Lorena are not habitually excused or catered to for repeat and serial offenses.
If this pseudo-Bobbitt were accused of castrating her husband’s young child, then admitted to circumcising another of his adopted children, I don’t think I’d be able to consume any art of hers without thinking about that, and I’d be upset if the media collectively greeted each new mediocre work she made with apparent amnesia about the whole thing.
If she did a hundred or fifty years ago? Maybe I can just look at it on its own terms in a New Criticism way. But if someone ever gushed about the artist without acknowledging the penis chopping, I’d definitely bring it up as a reminder. As in, ‘That person’s is not inspirational. That person abused someone in a horrific way, and the victim received absolutely no justice for it.’
* * *
Even those who support destroying seized ivory would be against smashing prehistoric relics with a hammer. At some point of remove, the sting of all sins disappear. But which point?
* * *
I don’t know how you treat Elvis or his music. I just know Elvis like young girls. If he’d been a less talented singer, less famous, it wouldn’t have been tolerated. He’d have been Humbert Humbert, or more to truth, Frank La Salle.