With the news of Phil Spector’s death, my friend Dallas Jones went to Facebook and posted these important questions: “How do we handle the brilliant work of Phil Spector in relationship to his terrible shortcomings as a human being? How do we ultimately come to terms with any artist/celebrity/musician that has committed unspeakable atrocities?”
Comments ranged from sensitive consideration of damaged lives to simple separation of art from artist. Without degenerating into broadsides and oversimplifications of cancel culture, most of the responses acknowledged it can be a complicated problem. I think it is.
I struggle with how to respond to songwriters, actors, and politicians who have said or done unethical or immoral things in the past. Most of my thoughts tend to go to questions of capital and power. Am I supporting a monster with my votes and money? Because I’m a middle-aged, white, heterosexual man, those are the things I’ve been shaped to consider. This kind of discussion is often dominated by old white guys like me – people with the least skin in the game. It’s a privilege of white masculinity to sit at a distance and separate subject from object, moral actor from the art or ideas created. White men have the historic authority for such proclamations, and they rarely feel the personal damage from monstrous misbehaviors. For me to pontificate about predatory treatment of women, or racial violence, is to project and intellectualize the situations. I don’t feel them as viscerally, with as much deep emotion, as victims and survivors. No skin in the game.
So, I can’t say it’s easy to separate the art from the artist. It wouldn’t be fair or true. To treat it as a simple equation is to trivialize the suffering of others. It can also be riddled with hypocrisy. Many of us remain gobsmacked at the willingness of Trump supporters to overlook his many transgressions of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and general immorality in favor of his “policy” “achievements.” I realize presidential character is closer to the job of leadership than, say, personal ethics are to the wall of sound, or a sitcom, but it’s worth questioning our moral consistency.
I mean, what if George Floyd’s killers had been in a really great cover band called Back the Blues Brothers. Would we continue to value the musical contribution despite their atrocities? Fuck no. Right?
The reason it’s a difficult discussion is I’m also bothered by a pattern that could essentially eliminate all great art or ideas, if we institutionalize a new fundamentalism that requires absolute purity from every leader or creator. Not a sustainable model.
I don’t think there’s an easy or universal answer. We all have to grapple with this ourselves and make our own decisions. I’m skeptical of anyone who declares what we should believe or do.
My friend and musical virtuoso Molly Healey aptly directed our attention to a 2017 article by Claire Dederer in The Paris Review called, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?
Dederer takes us to task for making this a collective decision, for asking how we should respond.
We is an escape hatch. We is cheap. We is a way of simultaneously sloughing off personal responsibility and taking on the mantle of easy authority. It’s the voice of the middle-brow male critic, the one who truly believes he knows how everyone else should think. We is corrupt. We is make-believe. The real question is this: can I love the art but hate the artist? Can you? When I say we, I mean I. I mean you.
She goes deeper, unpacking the qualities and motives of our moralizing.
When you’re having a moral feeling, self-congratulation is never far behind. You are setting your emotion in a bed of ethical language, and you are admiring yourself doing it. We are governed by emotion, emotion around which we arrange language. The transmission of our virtue feels extremely important, and weirdly exciting.
Asking us to perform a deep audit of our motives, Dederer calls us to a form of humility here, not to sway us to one side or the other in the debate, but to invite us to transparency and ownership of our own moral judgments.
Stop side-stepping ownership. I am the audience. And I can sense there’s something entirely unacceptable lurking inside me. Even in the midst of my righteous indignation…I’m not an entirely upstanding citizen myself. Sure, I’m attuned to my children and thoughtful with my friends; I keep a cozy house, listen to my husband, and am reasonably kind to my parents. In everyday deed and thought, I’m a decent-enough human. But I’m something else as well, something vaguely resembling a, well, monster. The Victorians understood this feeling; it’s why they gave us the stark bifurcations of Dorian Gray, of Jekyll and Hyde. I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.
The psychic theater of the public condemnation of monsters can be seen as a kind of elaborate misdirection: nothing to see here. I’m no monster. Meanwhile, hey, you might want to take a closer look at that guy over there.
So, was Phil Spector a monster? He certainly did some monstrous things.
Should we relax and enjoy listening to the music he made, unmolested by the truth of who he was? You and I will need to answer that for ourselves.