Can you ever separate the art from the artist?

Audience defensiveness on the part of the accused isn’t really about the accused at all. It’s about protecting the work. 

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Leaving Neverland is a well-made, detailed and non-sensationalist documentary that convincingly alleges two specific cases of child abuse committed by Michael Jackson in the 1990s. It has been praised for its bravery and clarity, and has also been condemned by the singer’s estate as “an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson”. Horrifyingly, the most extreme reactions to the documentary have seen people involved in the film, including Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck, the two traumatised men who are its main subject, receiving death threats from the singer’s most devoted fans.

Jackson, tried and acquitted of multiple counts of child molestation in his lifetime, is dead. There can never be a finding in criminal law about his actions. What Jackson can still do, however, is continue to generate wealth. Not only do the records he made continue to sell and receive airplay, his estate also develops new works and new products around his “legacy”. Thriller – Live, which premiered the year of his death, is still on in four countries, including in London’s West End, and has been performed in dozens more over the last decade. Another musical, as yet untitled, and written by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, will debut on Broadway next year.

It is often asserted that a single unproven allegation of a sexual nature can destroy a man’s – and it is almost always a man’s – career. This is transparently untrue, and we didn’t need the continuing success of the late Michael Jackson to show us that. Hollywood seems to have collectively decided that the allegations against Bryan Singer should be ignored. He has a major film, Red Sonja, in active development, and his most recent release, Bohemian Rhapsody, is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

In both Singer and Jackson’s cases, we are talking about allegations only, in themselves perceived as career destroying. In truth, even conviction is not enough. Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor in 1977, yet his reputation is still zealously protected by online partisans and his friends in the film industry. Having fled the United States before sentencing following his conviction, he has been a fugitive from justice for 40 years. In that period he has directed 12 feature films and won a Best Director Academy Award, even while additional accusations against him, all denied by the director, have accrued. There are enough similar examples to fill a vast book.

Audience defensiveness on the part of the accused isn’t really about the accused at all. It’s about protecting the work. We are told you can separate a work and its creator, but after Leaving Neverland is it really possible to engage with Jackson’s work without being haunted by the testimony of those two young men? And they remain, a quarter of a century later, young men.

Meaning lies not in things, but in the spaces between them. Allegations and revelations fill the space between any piece of work and its audience. An artist’s work can be spoiled by trivial matters of political disagreement, as anyone who was on Twitter when Kate Bush formally announced that she did not support the Conservative Party will be very well aware. It’s absurd to suggest this doesn’t apply when someone is convicted, or even simply accused, of abuse.

The many varied works of Rolf Harris, convicted of 12 cases of indecent assault on children simply cannot be separated from that fact, considering how much of it was for or involved children, and how much it depended on a television persona that was friendly, avuncular and safe. Yet the reverse is also true. Nosferatu the Vampyre is a different film now. It is almost impossible to watch Klaus Kinski play a sexual monster knowing that he was one, following convincing allegations against him by his daughters raised separately by their different mothers. Everything is text.

Separation can only ever really be achieved in ignorance, whether genuine or feigned. The American actor Stephen Collins confessed in 2014 to “inappropriate sexual conduct with female minors” between 1973 and 1994. Although previously a star on American television, he’s little known in the UK, and his appearance as Captain Decker in Star Trek: The Motion Picture isn’t going to stop it being shown on television or being available on Blu-ray. His lack of recognisability, and perhaps the seemingly incidental nature of his involvement protects the film as much as the fact it’s part of a major franchise. (7th Heaven, a long running American series in which he starred, was pulled from syndicated repeats in the wake of his admissions.)

Unlike Nosferatu the Vampyre or Star Trek: The Motion Picture, programmes presented by Rolf Harris and the late Jimmy Savile have simply disappeared from view. Mentions of Clement Freud were conspicuous in their absence on the recent programmes commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Radio 4’s Just A Minute, a series of which he was a regular part for more than 40 years. This is probably easy, cynically, because few would argue they were of outstanding artistic merit. No one felt the need to try to separate the creator from their work.

This does not always happen. Academic arguments over the recorded “raptus” of 21-year-old Cecilia Chaumpaigne at some point before May 1380 and her full releasing of one Geoffrey Chaucer from any kind of legal action in relation to it, are unlikely to dislodge Chaucer’s work from its centrality to the history or study of English literature. That’s not entirely because it is not, at the remove of more than 600 years, clear exactly what is being referred to by the single document we have.  

The artist Eric Gill’s posthumous reputation was fundamentally changed in 1989 when a new biography by Fiona MacCarthy reported Gill’s sexual abuse of his children, as recorded in enthusiastic detail in his diaries, and attested to by survivors. And Gill’s extensive work provides examples of many of the possible reactions to what should be reputation shattering revelations.

Gill created many fonts. Few would be able to name them, despite their frequent use. Even fewer would know of their designer or about his life: there is little, nothing maybe, in the work to clue the uninformed about him, and knowing about him has no impact on their utility. Gill’s statue of Ariel on London’s Upper Regent Street is probably seen by thousands of people a day. Few will pay it much notice. Even fewer will have the context to have a strong reaction to it, and an opinion whether it should still be there.

This is not true of all his work. Much of Gill’s art was religious, he was an active Catholic, and many understandably find it hard not to be offended by representations of divine paternal love created by a man who abused his own children. There have been multiple campaigns to remove certain works by Gill from religious spaces. The most extreme examples are Gill’s portraits of his daughters, once universally praised, which cannot possibly be seen in the same light now. Alarmingly, the Dictionary of National Biography concludes that the revelations about Gill “strengthened” his artistic legacy, as part of a piece written by the biographer who revealed Gill’s true nature to the world. 

Audience anger, and the suggestion that accusation destroys someone’s career, seems to be a simple example of transference. What is tainted is an audience’s ability to engage with the work. It makes the process of navigating the consumption of art or content produced by such a person more difficult, more complex. It makes the audience complicit, and audiences resent being made to feel complicit when all they have done is continue to enjoy something. The audience may be the largest group involved in any such negotiation around an accused or convicted creator, but it is also by far the least important.

Except in one sense. It is open to an audience to simply abandon a work tainted by association. It may be that, at least in the cases of those whose crimes remained uncovered in their own lifetime, the oblivion of the posterity they sought through their work may be the most fitting punishment available.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.