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Can we separate art from the artist?
Sure. We can view a painting, hear a poem and piece of music, and be moved, inspired, touched, elated, emoted, and basically, react or respond, to it.
We can have an opinion. We can love it or hate it.
And none of that can have anything to do with its creator.
We might not even know who the artist was behind that particular piece that changed something for us, that lodged itself forever into our memory bank.
But knowing more about the creator can add new layers of understanding, new perspectives of context, and this can change the way we absorb and perceive their art.
In lieu of the ongoing and shockingly sad revelations that are now pouring out into the light, concerning some of our beloved artists and “genius creators,” the question becomes more urgently, not can we—but should we separate the art from the artist?
Betrayal breaks something.
Something so deep that was never to be spoken of in the first place. This betrayal, as I see it, and deeply feel it, is of trust.
Because this is the betrayal that I’m palpably feeling right now, I’m naming the artist who has been spotlighted with startling incriminations these past few weeks—one of my childhood heroes, Michael Jackson.
Now I didn’t know him, of course not. And to be clear, I do not know whether he did bad things or not (though it’s damn hard to deny the evidence that has been presented). But something has torn inside me.
Like many many people all over the world, I grew up on his music. A child of the 80s, I was the absolute pop geek. I remember when his video for Thriller came out. I might have been 11-years-old and our class was given the treat of watching the video on a VHS tape (obvs!) on a clunky, chunky television that wheeled into the main hall for the occasion.
It was unlike anything we’d ever seen. It was the first pop video of its kind and as I have absolutely no idea why we were even given this treat.
I also remember when he died. I was staying with a dear friend down in Brighton for the weekend. We were cooking brekkie and had the radio on in her kitchen when the news broke. We were, like many, shocked and saddened.
And in between there are far, far too many memories of events and occasions where his music was a beloved ally of that moment in time.
And yet now.
Now I feel a grief. A shock. As if he has just died again: I feel a confusion too, as if some deep-seated part of my cellular knowing isn’t to be trusted now—because it allowed this man in to my life, my heart, and my story.
You see, this is the thing: he abused our innocence (allegedly). Sensitively I say this as I’m aware of the difference, of course, between literal abuse of innocence and metaphoric abuse. Obviously, in the context of this article, I mean the latter. And I can’t even imagine how this would have been, and chillingly still is, impacting the men (once boys) who have spoken up.
We let life move us when we are open and seated in our innocence.
It’s the only way life can meet us and we can meet life. To feel it all. To appreciate the beauty of a piece of art, to be stirred by a melody, a chord, to weep at a photograph, and to dance.
We need art.
We thirst and hunger for that which feeds our soul, that reminds us that we’re not just a human doing, a hamster on a wheel of ever-consuming busyness.
Art gives us hope, courage, and can often change our lives.
And art connects us. And that’s one of the most extraordinary and blessed gifts that we can bow and give thanks too.
But we also put our artists on pedestals—don’t we?
We crown them as our Gods, another, perhaps more subconscious hunger for something of greatness to worship, to bask in, to look toward, to speak the truth of our life and humanity in languages that most of us mere mortals would or could never aspire to.
And as we create our own Gods, perhaps we create our own monsters, too!
It certainly seems like it these last few years, especially as all of these tidal waves of abuse of power are rising to the surface of humanity’s ocean to be cleared.
It’s ugly work. It’s devastating. It’s causing us to wake up in a thousand different ways to the fantasies we have been living in and the fantasies that have soothed us from the truth. It’s shit basically. And in the breaking of illusion, we find ourselves in the shock of disbelief, and the grief of loss.
Now I’m not interested to go to blaming or shaming. Though I do understand that for some people this is a necessary catharsis and part of the complexity of how we seek to deal with, and heal from such tragedies.
Beneath these atrocities, and I’m talking broader now than the actions of just one specific man here, there’s a person. And I’m guessing, a rather pained, broken, lost, and fragile being. Please understand that I’m not at all leveraging any ease on to the severity of the actions allegedly committed. Absolutely not.
But on a deeper level, and aren’t we seeing this in a different context with those artists we love (Amy Winehouse, Prince, and still fresh in the bruise of our hearts, Keith Flint), who instead of seeking outside of themselves to unleash a pain so deep they couldn’t bear to carry any longer the shame, darkness, and force—and chose to destroy themselves first. Innocence again.
I believe that artists are such exquisitely sensitive creatures: so paper thin to life. They have to be so in order to have the ability to turn water into wine, so to speak, to perform alchemy by the way they transmute the ordinary into beauty. It’s a superpower. And that superpower’s kryptonite is sensitivity—it’s vulnerability.
Fame most likely attracts the shadows. Soul sucking vampires, and deranged demons that ironically are only summoned because of the artist’s own bright daimon. Daimon is another word for genius.
We don’t necessarily protect our artists, our geniuses. And this innocence is corrupted I’m guessing from very early days. What can we do? I’m not talking about wrapping our artists in cotton wool. And there are anomalies of course. Not all creative geniuses are such highly sensitive types. (I don’t know why I have the image of Jagger and Richards in my mind as I write this!)
I feel that the most vital gift we can learn is to be anchored in our own bodies. Absolutely rooted to the ground of the earth and who we are. So we have a solid base to live in and from. A more substantial sense of self. Not just artists but all of us.
When we are “here” in our own embodiment, we can feel what’s true. We can sniff out that which dishonours us or seeks to corrupt. We can learn to align with our values. We can sense B.S. and it’s creeping necrosis within sniffing distance.
We can check if we’re okay or we’re feeling like we need extra support, true support, time out away from the glare of blindness and being burnt alive. We can choose wisely and, in particular, who we hang out with, and who we allow in our inner circle. We can be much more aware of, and thus choose more consciously our actions and what’s truly important to us. No more hiding. No more excuses. No more abuse of power. Simply clear, honest, responsibility.
We can’t protect our young next-generation-creators but we can un-stigmatise the reality of fame and fortune. We can speak openly about how badass and “cool” it actually is to voice our vulnerability. And we can learn that being a true hero(ine) is about having the courage to seek help if possible. I know it’s not always possible if you’re so far buried under delusion and pain. But we need you beautiful art makers. We need you.
I know that artists are notorious with scandal and sleaze and dubious levels of morality which sometimes, if we’re honest, we have chosen to turn a blind eye to and ignore—for the sake of their genius. We get giddy with their brilliance, their vitality, and their very luminous life force. I know that I’m guilty of choosing to disbelieve other rumours I have heard over the years of others whom I adore and admire. I have chosen to continue to choose to experience their art, words, visuals, and music in the full knowledge that integrity was not part of their makeup. As a former yoga teacher, I am very much aware of this abuse of power in that sacred world that continues still. Again, I appreciate and have received something from those particular teachers that I value, and will continue to do so.
But do we turn our backs completely? Make sweeping right or wrong, black or white (ahem!) judgments? Or can we live with the knowing that sometimes the people we love do terrible things? An uncomfortable place but a true one to sit in.
Will I continue to listen to Michael Jackson’s music? Certainly. But it won’t be in the same carefree way again. The veil has fallen, there’s a crack that wasn’t there before. It no longer can bring the same kind of joy anymore. And that’s sad and a shame.
You see, art in its self, is pure. The artist, in their flawed and imperfect ego human form, is not.
Maybe it’s time that we realised this, and start to wake ourselves up gently, whilst we’re shaken up cruelly—as the truth comes out in these strange times.
With great fame from the act of creation becomes great freedom. And it is in that place that great responsibility comes too.
As for the original question, can we, should we, separate art from the artist, I don’t know if we can. And that means, for me, this is another paradox to bear in this crazy, great, big, creative project called life.