Separating the art from the artist

Published

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Genevieve Brown
Writer

Writer Genevieve Brown explores the well-loved Roald Dahl’s extreme anti-semitic views, as well as other recent instances of anti-Semitism in popular culture.

Roald Dahl was an unapologetic anti-semite.

Comments he made to the Independent in 1990 included the admission, “I’ve become anti-semitic”. He also affirmed his beliefs in many common anti-Jewish stereotypes during the interview. Even though Roald Dahl was able to conjure images of a boy living in a peach and of giants catching dreams, his imagination failed when it came to the concept that all people deserve to be treated equally.

You would be mistaken to hope, as I once did, that these were nothing more than the out-of-touch ideas of a 74-year-old. One of his best-loved works, Matilda, was published two years prior to these remarks, perhaps leading one to hope that these opinions were due to his age. But he had also sympathised with Hitler in a previous interview with the New Statesman in 1983, showing that this prejudice was long-held.

Anti-semitism has experienced a resurgence in recent years; many people today receive their news from social media, which allows a wide range of unfiltered views to be expressed, and can encourage the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Many conspiracy theories that appear absurd on their surface have the capacity to possess antisemitic undercurrents. Theories that there is a group of individuals secretly controlling the world can be traced back to an anti-semitic source – such as the Zionist Occupation Government conspiracy theory, which suggests that a group of Jews control Western governments.

American president Donald Trump recently referred to “globalists” attempting to take over the world, a classic example of the anti-semitic trope. Trump has also said that there were “very fine people on both sides”, after the killing of a counter-protester at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

Anti-Jewish sentiment is found in left-wing politicians as well as right-wing, however. The Labour party recently chose to hold its discussion on its new rules on dealing with anti-semitism and racism on the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest for practising Jews, having failed to consult its Jewish members. This was certainly a thoughtless move for the party – yet, when taken into context with the party’s history and worldwide politics, it only proved that obvious lack of consideration of Jewish people is worryingly rife in current political discourse.

Whether or not one can separate an artist from their art is perhaps a more urgent question in these polarised times than it has ever been. The Smiths were celebrated at their peak for giving comfort and a voice to disaffected and confused youth. Their lead singer and lyricist, Morrissey, is adored in Mexico, a location that couldn’t be atmospherically further from his hometown of Manchester, yet Mexican people still identify with the themes of longing present in The Smiths’ songs.

The Smiths’ record sleeves were subversive in that they are inspired by Morrissey’s exploration of his sexuality. Morrissey named one of The Smiths’ albums Meat is Murder to promote animal rights. Despite his championing of the outsider, and despite his penning of lyrics including “It’s so easy to laugh/it’s so easy to hate/it takes guts to be gentle and kind,” Morrissey is now a supporter of the openly racist political party, For Britain. He has used his public platform to repeatedly make racist declarations in interviews. I, for one, no longer wear my Morrissey t-shirt.

Graceland by Paul Simon is a beautiful album that is often listed as one of the best albums of all time. Less frequently publicised, however, is the fact that Simon chose to ignore the cultural boycott of South Africa and recorded it in the country during apartheid. However, I still wear my Graceland t-shirt.

Considering much of the merchandise I own – the Pulp Fiction poster tainted by its Harvey Weinstein association; the Drake longsleeve that makes me wince since his collaboration with Chris Brown – I am struck by the fact that we need new art, and new voices to make it, when so many of the things that makes us nostalgic come with such problematic associations.

A recent trend on social media sees both fans and artists attack their critics. This ranges from Lana Del Rey publicly disagreeing with a review of her album, to Michael Jackson fans denying his alleged paedophilia. The hostility of an online environment can make the consequences of a mistaken tweet, belief or idea very severe. Often, issues will be blown up to unprecedented heights due to the instant virality of these platforms. Fans should acknowledge the wrongdoing of the celebrities they adore, but they also should not be judged for being fans. I believe that an artist’s legacy shouldn’t be erased by their problematic actions, but nor should it be unaffected. The answer is to consider each case individually.

In 2014, it was revealed that the Royal Mint had decided against a commemorative Roald Dahl centenary coin because his anti-semitic remarks had resulted in him not being “regarded as an author of the highest reputation”. He has irretrievably tainted his own work, and culture is now providing the consequences.