Recently, a friend posted the following to her Facebook profile: ‘Righto. It’s time to be 110% done with Amanda Palmer, alas. This one’s the cherry on the fave-is-problematic cake.’ Beneath it was a link to a Storify collection of tweets by Anne Thériault, which in turn linked to Amanda Palmer announcing on her official Facebook page that she would not be removing Jian Ghomeshi, the former CBC radio host who was fired after several women stated that he had physically assaulted and raped them, from a forthcoming promotional appearance in support of her new book, The Art of Asking. ‘jian is my guest,’ Palmer tweeted. ‘i don’t kick guests out of my house, or off my stage, because of what they’re going through. ever. the end.’ Except, as it turns out, Palmer does kick guests off her stage because of what they’re going through – a few days after her qualified defence of Ghomeshi, Palmer announced that she had asked him not to appear at her event after all: ‘given everything i’ve learned, and especially given how upsetting it would be to so many, jian will not be coming to the show in toronto.’
Despite this volte-face, my friend is not the only person who has disavowed Palmer’s music in response to her behaviour. Many of Palmer’s (former) fans let her know through social media that her inadequate response to the Ghomeshi scandal has finally inspired them to cease consuming her work. Palmer has, of course, done some pretty dumb and distasteful stuff before this: she also published a poem for accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a week after the bombing, formed a musical group called Evelyn Evelyn in which she performed the persona of one half of a set of conjoined twins, and simulated sexual assault on a Katy Perry lookalike during a performance.
Conversely, the Canadian musician Owen Pallett probably won over a few new fans with his public statement about his friendship with Ghomeshi, and why he has chosen to believe the women who have accused him of assault over the testimony of his friend. Pallett’s statement went viral as an example of the right kind of response to have to such a situation. Clearly, fans and consumers tend to avoid music made by people whose actions disagree with their moral compasses, and, conversely, to reward those whose actions align with them. But are they right to do so?
Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat, recently made the case that they are not. Art, she argues, is separate from the artist; the artist does not belong to anyone but themselves, while their art belongs to ‘everyone’. Thus, Harris argues, it’s entirely possible to enjoy the art created by an ethically dubious artist, because the separation between artist and art creates a cordon sanitaire, through which the taint of moral transgressions cannot pass. You can therefore enjoy Ted Hughes’s poems without being troubled by his contribution to Sylvia Plath’s fatal misery, or dance to Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock and Roll (Part Two)’ without necessarily thinking of or feeling sorrow for the children he molested.
Harris’s position is hardly novel – it’s the logical, if somewhat facile, endpoint of a congeries of dominant cultural narratives: the romantic ideal of the universality of ‘good’ art and culture (‘art belongs to everyone, for as long as it endures’) meets the western cult of the individual (artists ‘are people, and as such, they don’t belong to anyone’), with little dashes of Roland Barthes’s notion of the death of the author (‘Art is far more than the artist’) and Edmund Husserl’s practice of phenomenological epoché (‘art may speak to us or not, but isn’t finding out half the fun?’) thrown in. This is the kind of argument that many people have made, explicitly or not, and so much so that it’s almost an axiom of music criticism or consumption in our culture: the artist and the art are separate, so don’t judge one by the other, and try to approach the art with as few preconceptions as possible in order to stage a pure encounter with it.
While listening to music without layers of preconceptions – or, at least, trying to – can often be a worthwhile exercise, it would be foolish to assume that this is the right or ideal way for everyone to do so. For example: a few years ago, not long after Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna, I was called upon to review his putative ‘comeback’ album, Graffiti. In order to understand the album as a self-contained object, I had to listen to it with as few preconceptions about Brown as humanly possible. I had, in short, to follow Husserl’s lead and try to suspend my knowledge of the album’s contexts and paratexts: to stop thinking about the infuriatingly smug expression Brown wears on the cover, to stop picturing the photos of Rihanna’s battered and bruised face, to not link the petulance of the album’s lyrics to Brown’s own petulance at being held accountable for his act of violence. I’m not sure that I succeeded in encountering Graffiti on the pure level of sensory phenomena that Husserl so rapturously describes – but I certainly tried. Listening to it in that way opened my ears to some of its musical virtues, ones that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. But when it came time to make an assessment of the album, I could no longer bracket off its contexts and paratexts, because I was aware that no listener who was not being paid to be fair-minded about Graffiti would be so. (As you might guess, I ended up panning it.)
Harris’s argument falls apart because she is wrong about both people and art. People do belong to each other, at least in certain ways: we are all born into social and cultural structures, and, as Marcel Mauss and Claude Levi-Strauss have observed, those structures are maintained through complex webs of reciprocal obligations. Art, on the other hand, does not belong to everyone: in order to fully appreciate a particular style of music I have to possess a knowledge of its cultural background and understand its musicological lexicon (which might explain why I adore the brutal sonics of early Throbbing Gristle while most of my friends and family do not). Humans are fundamentally social beings, therefore the art we make can only ever be understood within a given social framework; all social interactions have an ethical dimension, therefore all art has an ethical dimension.
It might be in some sense ‘unfair’ to Amanda Palmer for my friend to cease listening to her music, and certainly we shouldn’t expect that all musicians can or even should be paragons of virtue and intelligent thought. But those who want to maintain the cordon sanitaire between art and artist risk something much worse than ‘unfairness’: in denying the power of the social and cultural, they risk overlooking what makes us human in the first place.