In the 2018 Netflix stand-up special Nanette, which is believed to have revolutionised comedy forever, Hannah Gadsby attempted to rewrite the history of art by calling out father-of-cubist-art Pablo Picasso for what he is.
A misogynist, a sexual predator, and an unapologetic chauvinist, who serially objectified and enslaved women, often minors, in abusive relationships.Hannah Gadsby, Nanette
Gadsby referred to one affair in particular, where a 45-year-old (married) Picasso starts sleeping with a 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter. But what she takes the most
Hold that thought
Consuming the art of our
Whenever we are confronted with the allegations against a larger-than-life genius, we usually make our peace with their inexcusable behaviour in real life, weighing it against their unparalleled contributions to their respective fields. The question that comes up is often this one: Why do I necessarily need to stop listening to [insert accused artist’s name] if I’m able to appreciate the art while condemning the artists’ actions?
This includes posthumous figures like Karl Lagerfeld, actors like Marlon Brando, musicians like David Bowie, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Dr. Dre and even XXXtentacion, if we are to talk about the cultural significance of the gulf between the values they profess in their art and codes they live by. Among living icons, the conversation rankles with dialogues and debates concerning Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Johnny Depp, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Chris Brown, R Kelly, and the elephant in the room, Michael Jackson.
When it comes to Jackson, it’s never black or white
With the recent release of Dan Reed’s Leaving Neverland, the new documentary which rocked the Sundance Film Festival and is being championed by Oprah Winfrey, the dark side of Jackson’s legend vis-a-vis his alleged paedophilia, has staged a return ten years after his death.
Forcing viewers to take cognisance of some hard and other speculative facts about the accusations of child molestation that have followed the prodigious global pop star, the two-part HBO series banks on the wrenching testimonies of two of many children that Jackson befriended, allegedly coaxed and cajoled into spending time with him at his ranch-zoo-amusement park—Hideout.
When he had been charged with multiple counts of child molestation in 2003, it was Wade Robson and James Safechuck’s testimonies that abetted his acquittal. Around 1993, James and Wade told the authorities that Jackson didn’t molest them; and Wade testified in court on Jackson’s behalf in 2005.
But fatherhood and therapy seem to have brought the two men to now confess in separate accounts, that Jackson sexually abused them for years, from boyhood into adolescence. They have laid out horrifying and detailed accounts of how they met their hero, how they came to enter his inner circle, and how Jackson allegedly indulged in a range of sexual acts with them, even performing a mock-wedding ceremony with Safechuck.
Jackson’s estate, which Reed hadn’t contacted for a response, has vehemently denied what James and Wade allege, and is suing HBO for $100 million worth of damages; the film apparently breaches a non-disparagement clause in a contract with Jackson from the early 1990s. And yet, it is a story that needed telling and now.
While the accusations are not new, their revival in the #MeToo era, with its momentum of accountability for figures like R Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, gives them new meaning.
We may have spent the last 26 years preparing for a moment like this — for somebody to lay it all out, graphically, frankly; for somebody to tell us their story, not Jackson’s. Jackson was brilliant at infusing his sense of persecution into his music videos, interviews, and the trial that sought to punish a man who was too complicated to try. What it should have done instead was to bear witness and do justice by the increasing number of children in MJ’s fold.
Reed’s documentary does not try and make cultural or political statement about the allegations, nor is it a feat of investigative journalism like the CNN report on the mysterious death of Godfather of soul and serial wife-beater, James Brown. In fact, it is awfully limiting in scope.
But it eliminates the option for viewers to settle with plausible deniability or latch onto extenuating details from Jackson’s own troubled childhood— abused and prematurely sexualised which left him too stunted to distinguish between adult passion and child’s play—to justify his eccentricities.
It attacks the haze of showbiz again and again, to dismantle the distilled misconceptions we have of our favourite icons, just because they are immensely successful.
Tabloid stories also played a role in justifying the platonic, cute, and banal relationship he shared with his “little friends”, when in fact, Jackson’s choices in life versus his aura onstage provided one of the first occasions to question art and the artist.
The story was that Jackson never molested anybody. And it stuck.
Where do we go from here? If we believe the accusers, what do we do with the art, especially with someone like Jackson, whose music is elemental? Isn’t his music the zenith and the origin all rolled into one? And the music it has inspired—that music is everywhere. Where would the cancellation begin?
Where to draw the line: A few starting points
It has to begin somewhere, even if it’s with streaming platforms like Spotify taking a stand and banning R Kelly’s music from their sites, months before his alleged misconduct led to his arrest. Dropping XXXtentacion as well: it marked one of the very few moments of #MeToo in the music industry. While Kelly’s songs are played at almost every graduation party, the latter’s song was on the R&B/hip-hop airplay charts for a long time—which would not be possible if radio stations were boycotting him.
Kelly’s loyal fandom, meanwhile, was left to reckon with the horrifying alleged crimes by an artist who has made some of R&B’s most enduring tracks, whose history of abusive
Just like Jackson, Kelly allegedly dangled promises of mentorship before teenagers interested in music careers to involve them in underage sexual relationships. And like all these powerful men, he had a powerful network protecting him from scrutiny and disempowering his accusers.
The cesspool of comments under #LeavingNeverland are the perfect demonstration of why powerful pedophiles get away with their crimes.
Too many adults would rather bury the abused than unearth an abuser.— The Hoarse Whisperer (@HoarseWisperer) March 4, 2019
In such a situation, cutting the flow to royalty (which forms an important source of revenue for musicians) and the #MuteRKelly campaign on Twitter-Spotify really helped spread awareness about the conscious consumption of music. Similarly, Jackson’s documentary poses a reportedly significant risk to the Jackson estate, which has engineered a thriving career after Jackson’s death.
How we consume art and why it matters
Separating these alleged abusers from their art is further complicated by the fact that in many cases, their music gives these men the platform and resources to commit their alleged crimes. This, in turn, thwarts the onus onto consumers, to make the conscious decision while streaming their music or buying a concert ticket.
The entire fiasco also underlines the need to redraw, revise, and broaden canons to include female artists who have been oppressed and omitted for centuries. This will further help soften the blow when our undeniably-beloved male artists fall from grace.
Because, at the end of the day, how many artists will Spotify ban? And why have they retained in their libraries so many others accused of objectionable behaviour, while exempting only two black artists?
As opposed to the huge backlash against Jackson’s legacy and the resurgence of charges against Kelly, Bollywood which was swept by the #MeToo wave last October is ready to exonerate its named, notable, and notorious.
Popular actor Alok Nath who was accused by filmmaker Vinta Nanda of
Blame it on bad public memory or careless consumption of entertainment, we ultimately become complicit in enabling this kind of
Even if this is incredibly difficult to write, I believe we become a part of the problem when we uphold the structure that continues to
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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