Edvard Munch, artist behind ubiquitous painting The Scream was once asked what, as I imagine all artists are, the most banal question you can ask someone who creates for a living: What is art? His answer was as follows “Art grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief. It is born of people’s lives.” It’s a pretty basic statement, that avoids classifying by form or content, linking artistic output primarily to emotion. It isn’t universal, as many artist are doubtless incredibly satisfied with their live, but the second half is an undeniable truth: art is born of people’s lives.
The problem with this, is that people aren’t great. It’s not hard to open up a wikipedia page and be told things about artists that will make your skin crawl. Morrissey’s well documented blunders over race, sexuality and politics are a famous example, less so is Michael Gira of Swans’ alleged rape of Larkin Grimm, or Miles Davis’ oft forgotten litany of domestic abuse stories. Even the terms at use are problematic - Grimm’s statement is treated as a spurious allegation, Davis’ legacy obscures his personal issues - but nonetheless it’s impossible to reason against the fact that these people have created art, give or take your personal taste.
So in the culture of 2016, with “No Platforming” in the public consciousness and concerns around privilege being brought to the fore, how do you square listening to these people? Before I proceed I have to say: I accept everything I think and say comes from a position of privilege, and I don’t intend to dictate to anyone, just to explore.
Art may be a product of people’s lives, but it isn’t their lives. The majority of people hold music in an important place in their lives, which goes some way to explaining why people are willing to dismiss the actions of the artist above the art. It also highlights exactly why it’s important to be aware of the actions of the artist. Whilst music frequently only acts in the contexts we bring to it, that isn’t a reason to be ignorant. If anything, it demands the exact opposite - if you listen to artists who are perhaps terrible people, you need to be totally aware of this, to be receptive to the concerns that others may have.
It isn’t as simple as refusing to acknowledge people like Miles Davis, but it’s also important not to eulogise artists as something beyond human. Don Cheadle’s film Miles Ahead exemplifies the problem. Whilst it was a great film that tackled awful things that Miles did during the creation of his music, it was far too lightweight. If art is an experience that can exist outside of the context it was created in, if it immediately causes a reaction in us, then awareness of the people behind it is doubly important.
The point of this line of thinking that may cause friction is the fact that I believe that music by people who are problematic is vital. I entirely accept people refusing to listen to music from these artists on moral or ethical principle, but I think it is limiting. Music isn’t from a pure place, and art need not be tainted by the actions of those that created it. Expression can be multiple: it can by exorcism or exclamation, and adulation or ablution. Understanding that people who disgust you, upset you, or pose a threat to you can create art is as important as your choice to not listen to them.
The vigilance required to keep up with every creator is draining, as is wrestling with the moral conflict. But, I don’t see enjoyment of the form as tacit approval, so long as the listener remains cognizant. It isn’t a watertight argument, perhaps it’s passing the buck, or even inherent cowardice and selfishness, but nevertheless it is what it is. Go through your collections, learn about the people who have created art that has connected with you, and if there are artist that are problematic, accept it, and never forget that anyone can create meaningful expressions, and that all art is people.
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