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Cancel culture conundrum: What to do with the art created by monstrous men (and women)?

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Ryland Fisher has more than 40 years of experience in the media industry as an editor, journalist, columnist, author, senior manager and executive. Among his media assignments were as Editor of the Cape Times and The New Age, and as assistant editor at the Sunday Times. Fisher is the author of Race (2007), a book dealing with some of the issues related to race and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. His first book, Making the Media Work for You (2002), provided insights into the media industry in South Africa. His most recent book is The South Africa We Want To Live In, based on a series of dialogues he hosted on the topic.

My daughters and I have been having difficult discussions about what to do about the art of monstrous men. We began our discussions shortly after world-renowned artist Zwelethu Mthethwa was found guilty of murdering a sex worker.

The arts have always been an outlet for many. We admire artists for the beautiful way they are able to put into words and images emotions and feelings that we have been struggling to explain. Quite often, they define different periods of our life, but especially our youth. I still remember the words of many of the songs we used to listen to in my youth. I have no such luck with more recent songs, because they did not play such an important part in my life.

But what happens when, as a 60-plus-year-old man who has dedicated his life to the Struggle for liberation of oppressed people in South Africa and the world, you are suddenly told that an artist you might have admired all your life is deeply flawed?

For the past few years, my daughters and I have been having difficult discussions about what to do about the art of monstrous men. We started our discussions after attending a session on this topic shortly after the world-renowned Cape Town-based artist, Zwelethu Mthethwa, was found guilty in 2017 of murdering a sex worker in Woodstock in 2013.

Fortunately, for me, I do not own any of his work, but if I did, I would have had to seriously consider destroying it because of his heinous deed. Selling it would not have made sense, because you would still be passing on his art and possibly profiting from it. It could have been a very expensive but principled decision.

But then we started talking about other art forms, particularly music and entertainment in general, where all of us have been listening and enjoying some artists who might have disappointed us with their actions in recent years or before.

One can think here of Eric Clapton, one of the best guitarists in the world and someone whose music informed much of my youth. But then I discovered he was racist and xenophobic, and I had no choice but to stop listening to his music.

There was a time when I enjoyed listening to R Kelly’s music, especially at parties, but this stopped a long time ago when allegations of him taking advantage of young girls started surfacing. It was not that difficult for me to stop listening to R Kelly, because he did not inform my youth, but I suspect it might have been more difficult for someone who is younger than me.

Someone who did inform my youth was Bill Cosby. I grew up watching The Cosby Show, enjoying how it destroyed stereotypes of black families. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, it was important to see that there were alternatives to black poverty. We admired Bill Cosby and the image he portrayed, until the allegations about him preying on many young women. I will never be able to remove the memories of enjoying The Cosby Show, but I can no longer support him or even watch repeats of the show.

Another artist who had a huge impact on me as a young person was Michael Jackson. I was mesmerised by his journey from a young black boy to what almost looked like a white woman, but there was no doubting his talent. Because of his talent, one has always been reluctant to make too much of the allegations of him grooming young boys, but in recent years the allegations became deafening, making them more difficult to ignore. What to do? Do I stop listening to the artist who had such a big influence on my youth?

More recently, the top South African DJ known as Black Coffee upset many of his fans when he decided to play a few gigs in Israel, despite the worldwide campaign in support of Palestine and against Israel. There are many more examples.

This week, I posted an article on Facebook about Janis Ian, whose song At Seventeen spoke to many young women of my generation. But the song also spoke to boys, like me, who felt ostracised by society and their peers. It seemed that Ian has always been a Zionist, as someone pointed out on my post. He also pointed out that she had broken the cultural boycott against South Africa in the 1980s.

This started a debate, like the one we have been having in my family, about what to do about artists who are imperfect, but their art is beautiful or speaks to a societal issue in ways that are special?

Someone suggested that sometimes it is best to separate the art from the artist, otherwise you will find yourself with no one and nothing to listen to, which, of course, started another debate. Someone else suggested that there are many other artists to listen to. But it is not that simple.

Do we really want our artists to be perfect? Is anyone perfect? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist? Artists are like everyone else: imperfect. We demand too much from them if we expect them to be perfect in every way.

But like everyone else, they will always have the potential to disappoint us. In some ways, we hold artists to higher standards than we do politicians. Okay, that is a bad comparison. We seem to hold them to higher standards than even religious leaders, in many cases.

Jazz guitarist George Benson was one of my favourite artists growing up. In fact, the first album I ever bought was Benson’s Weekend in LA. I remember how disappointed I was when he decided to come to South Africa in the early 1980s. I was angrier at myself for being so principled that I decided not to go to his show. Many years later, after South Africa had become a democracy, I decided to see Benson perform live in South Africa. I did not forget his transgression of the cultural boycott, but I figured that if Nelson Mandela could forgive FW de Klerk, I could forgive Benson. Was I wrong to forgive him?

And it is not only artists – what about sportspeople?

For instance, I have always admired Novak Djokovic as a player, but should my support for him end because he appears to be an anti-vaxxer and I firmly believe in vaccination? 

There are many other sports people who might have been heroes to some of us, but who disappointed us with their behaviour off the sports field.

Should I stop supporting my favourite rugby or soccer team because of the potential for toxic masculinity to surface at some point?

The issue of imperfect artists or sportspeople is not an easy one because of the way they impact on our lives. Do we have to vet all artists for political correctness before we decide to listen to their music in case we might like it? Maybe one should accept that, while they might please us in some ways, they will always have the potential to disappoint us in others. But that is easier said than done.

There are no easy answers, but art has always inspired debate, and maybe it is time for us to have the debate about us holding up artists as role models when we know that they could disappoint us at any time. DM

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  • Artists aren’t super heroes just people. The pedastal we put them on and then topple them from isn’t part of their artistic contribution. We identified Cosby with his role but he was only acting it. If the content of the art is despicable then boycott it but if it’s the artist who went wrong deal with him. Otherwise you’re just depriving the world of good art. We are capable of dealing with such dualities and contradictions without becoming modern day puritans.

  • Such an interesting article with many valid points. What did strike me however, was the extent to which it reinforces the truth in the saying that “We see things as WE are, not as THEY are. (My capitals). While I agree with Mr Fisher in almost all he says here, I refreshed my knowledge of who he is by reading the synopsis under his name. Not sure that a fomer editor of The New Age carries clout anymore? In my (personal bias) view, that ranks high in the ‘not OK’ stakes. Morality too, is a selective art……

  • Thanks for articulating your thoughts on this important topic. I have been thinking about this a lot since Michael Jackson was exposed as a paedophile. While I love his music and ability to entertain, I stopped listening to it and find myself raising the topic whenever I hear the music being played. There was a time when I could separate the art from the person. But now when I hear it on the radio or elsewhere, I imagine what he was doing before or after those concerts with the children we know about and where he got his inspiration etc. Your article gave me pause to expand my thinking on this topic to artists who defy boycotts. I also think that this is a different issue from whether the art itself is oppressive.

  • Interesting article. One thing that comes to mind is how we react to other peoples opinions. This is amplified when one becomes famous because millions of people hang onto your every word and finding hidden meanings in what they say. We forget that we are all human and we all screw up occasionally. Do we dislike others because they don’t conform to our preconceived ideas? Something that really perplexes me is this vax – anti vax debate where families have been pitted against each other and friendships broken all because of different opinions, which opposing parties assume is the truth. But who knows what is the truth. Even doctors don’t REALLY know the full extent of the human body and what provides impetus and life. None of knows what caused Eric Clapton to utter a perceived racist rant and for this single omission he is now branded a racist 40 years after the event despite him working closely with dozens of renowned black musicians. Social Media and Google have turned all of us into experts that know everything. The safer route is to ask probing questions from a perspective of not knowing and be prepared to be refuted

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