Thursday, 28 July 2011

Can you separate the art from the artist?

Is it ok to like art produced by someone whose views and beliefs are incompatible with your own?

Following the tragedy in Norway last Friday, the metal community apparently waited with baited breath (this may be a slight exaggeration) to hear what Varg Vikernes of Burzum, death metal's most infamous man (he burnt down churches and murdered his bandmate), had to say about it. Given that the guy has a well documented history of extreme right wing views, no-one should have been surprised at his reaction.

However, it has sparked a bit of debate about whether or not the man should be boycotted or not. Metalsucks says boycott, it is almost impossible to separate out the music from the man. That Devil Music thinks that is a bit too far, on the basis that other bands have been supported, despite their at times abhorrent view points, and that we should separate the music from the man.

So can you separate the music from the person?

Clearly some people will be able to. And as a liberal, I don't believe in banning viewpoints, I believe in freedom of speech no matter how awful or abhorrent that speech may be. But I think it is entirely justified to boycott goods and services because of the view points of the provider. There are places I will not spend the money I earn in because of their political viewpoints or dealings. Music for me is no real exception.

For me, two of the biggest things in my life are politics and music. I like it even more when the two things are combined. Bands such as NOFX, System of a Down, Rage Against The Machine etc appeal to me in part because of the political influence in their music. Like them or not, their political stances are not dangerous or calling on the world to rise up against a certain race or religion. And that is the crucial difference and the reason that I think Metalsucks have got it right.

Let's be clear about one thing: Metalsucks are calling for a boycott, not a ban. There is a massive difference. Bans prevent people from broadcasting their views, but a boycott removes their audience whilst not removing their freedom of speech.

Musicians of all genres are role models for society. The position of influence they hold should not be underestimated. If record sales for artists like Vikernes remain healthy, then it gives the impression that the views he holds are legitimate. Which they may be to some people but to the vast majority of the peace loving world, they aren't.

There are many other cases where this question has arisen. The recent arrest and legal wrangles of Roman Polanski for the rape of a minor some 30 years ago is just one example. I struggled with that one, as I think Polanski makes incredible films, but how can you begin to justify his actions? By chance the other example I had in mind is actually connected to Polanski - Charles Manson. His paintings and artworks are quite collectable in some circles, but can you ever separate his art from the crimes he committed? Would you be happy buying one of his paintings knowing that the price is in part inflated because of his notoriety?

I think there are certain things that cannot be brushed under the carpet or overcome by the perceived talent of the individual in question. Ultimately though, that decision rests with us, as consumers and it is something that we have to reconcile ourselves.

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