Warning: abuse, violence, sexual assault
Last year we saw Karrueche take out a restraining order against repeat offender Chris Brown, Kevin Spacey accused of assault against a minor, and a gruesome deposition of horrifying abuse suffered by girlfriend of American rapper XXX Tentacion. Black Brit artists are not exempt: Solo 45 and Bonkaz have both been charged with sexual assault charges in the past. What do we do with this information? Does it make any difference to what you and I listen to, watch and enjoy?
As these topics are becoming more and more widely discussed on social media, people are making calls to boycott anything produced by ‘badly behaved’ artists. Which of course I went along with. In the beginning.
A while ago, whilst deleting R Kelly off my Spotify, I started to question this boycotting and the general ‘cancelling’ culture that is becoming increasingly popular. Where is the cut-off point? Who stays and who goes? If we stop appreciating art by badly behaved artists, what will we have left to appreciate? Who’s to say we shouldn’t consume art by troubled people? Aren’t we all troubled? Shall I cancel my friends when they say problematic stuff?
A trip to the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican had me battling these questions all over again. Having read and researched around Basquiat for a couple of years now, there’s no denying he was troubled, suffering an abusive childhood then going on to mistreat others, particularly his girlfriend Suzanne Mallouk.
As I strolled around the gallery looking at all of the dark, creepy self-portraits and schizoid writing, I couldn’t help but feel creeped out. Why do we happily celebrate him but shun others? Why is Basquiat’s obvious mental illness seen as an intelligent, interesting thing to be admired instead of helped? Why was there absolutely no mention of his abusive childhood, drug abuse or problematic relationships?
Surely if the notion is widely held that art is determined by life happenings, particularly often being a physical representation of traumas too painful or politics too radical to speak, then to give the full experience the exhibition should have touched upon this, to explain Basquiat’s dark (but beautiful) artwork.
Anyway, I decided I had to come to a conclusion. Where was I going to draw the line? Here are some of the things I thought about and perhaps you can too when caught between a rock and a hard place, like when you want to do the right thing but the tune is too lit to quit.
- Mental Health
A lot of the time it seems that people who commit these severe crimes have either experienced some degree of trauma themselves or are mentally unstable. Chris Brown’s reported bipolar disorder and having an abusive father, Azealia Banks’ often seemingly erratic behaviour, Basquiat’s tumultuous childhood and extreme drug abuse. This is not to excuse their behaviour at all – all of the aforementioned were capable (at some point) of recognising the error of their ways to some extent and therefore should be held accountable. But surely there should be some room for someone to kindly suggest they seek some help? Or for these artists to shed light on commonly misunderstood or trivialised mental illnesses via their art. Of course, this all depends on whether the artist is actually doing this. If all they are producing is “I f*ck your bitch when I like”, well…
The mental health thing also goes both ways. Imagine you’re a DJ and you put on a tune by one of these people in the dance. What if there is someone there that feels personally threatened/triggered by the lyrics? Then the DJ and the people in the crowd singing “I f*ck that bitch when I like” are causing harm too!
- Accountability and Remorse
Apologising and making amends doesn’t solve the problem, but imagine finding the courage to tell your story to have not only the persecutor but their millions of fans call you a liar and minimise your trauma. I understand why people would delete Chris Brown from their music libraries because he seems to continuously publicly and privately harass, which suggests he isn’t remorseful or fully aware of the consequences of his actions against Rihanna or Karrueche. Similarly, R Kelly has never faced the consequences for any of his crimes, or even been brought to justice. But then, was Basquiat apologetic? This takes me on to the next point.
I was able to go to Basquiat’s exhibition and marvel at what beautiful, emotive, thought-provoking art came out of what was a chaotic and painful life. And then I leave, that’s it. He’s not all over our TV screens, playing in clubs, discussed regularly on the timeline. Does it mean that I think he is a great human being if I look at his paintings and that’s it? Listening to a musician like Chris Brown or XXX Tentacion in 2018 however, is quite different from this. Social media and popular culture means that today’s artists give us a lot more than art. People, young people especially, look up to them, aspiring to their lifestyles and using them as a parameter to judge what to wear, where to go, and what’s cool and what’s not, which basically translates to what’s right and what’s wrong.
Another thing that of course greatly affects an artist’s ability to influence is whether they are living or not. Artists such as Basquiat, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye were all abusive to others in one way or another but they are no longer with us and therefore not able to think “Hey, my 13 million fans are still supporting me, let me keep on abusing!” They are also no longer able to directly benefit financially from us consuming their art. So perhaps this means we can enjoy their art (critically!) without supporting abuse?
- Morality of the Art
David Carr, Professor of Ethics and Education at the University of Birmingham (my old uni! Big up yourself UoB) suggests that while some academics believe that art is never moral, just aesthetic, it seems that much art has a moral purpose. Furthermore, even if the artist claims no moral content to their work, it can still be perceived that way. For example, even if when Ty Dolla Sign said ‘girls are just horses in the stable that I can ride’ he was only saying it artistically and not because he wanted his listeners to believe he acts this way, this isn’t to stop said listeners from internalising this notion that girls are merely sexual objects to be pounced upon, and going out and pouncing.
Last but most definitely not least, race can play a part in the decision making. It’s no secret that the odds are stacked against non-white individuals in every way, from socio-economic status and access to mental health services, to acceptance and representation in competitive industries like the arts and entertainment. We might shy away from interrupting the success of black artists like those mentioned in this article because we know what they’ve had to overcome to get there, and the huge part that racial inequality plays in entertainment industries, the justice system, and beyond.
So, these are the main points I thought about and bored my family and friends with. At the end of the day, each case is different from the other and you will have to use your better judgement to come up with an idea of what to do when you find out your favourite rapper is a rapist. Some people can separate the art from the artist, others have to like every single thing about an individual before they can enjoy their work wholeheartedly. The bottom line is, much bad behaviour from artists, particularly male artists, has gone unaddressed. This is mainly because of the society we live in (another story for a different day). Today there is greater cultural awareness and sensitivity, so more and more we are seeing people being called out for unethical behaviour. This is good! The more widespread the belief that abuse is not okay, and the more we talk about it, the less it will happen (we hope). Perhaps the biggest thing is just to make sure we always have our thinking caps on, no matter how much this can suck the fun out of things sometimes (I mean who wants to be doing deep reflection and contemplation in the dance).
Let’s try and enjoy art critically, avoiding putting anyone on a pedestal that means you support everything they do. Nobody’s perfect.