29 Nov, 2013

The Ian Watkins case: who decides if the sins of an artist negate their art?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

After the Lostprophets’ singer Ian Watkins admitted sex crimes, HMV withdrew the band’s music from sale. But there have been many past cases where art has outlived its creators’ shame

Ian Watkins will, almost certainly, never be forgiven, his music never returned to general circulation. The magnitude of his crimes is too great; social media allowed the condemnation of them to spread too quickly, to too many people. There can barely be a person in the UK who – even if they had never heard a note of Lostprophets’ music – does not know who Watkins is and what he did. 

HMV’s decision to withdraw Lostprophets’ music from sale is a symbolic act, more than anything else. In the unlikely event that anyone has felt the urge to hear the Welsh metal band this week, their albums are still available from both Amazon and iTunes, far more significant in driving sales than a bricks-and-mortar retailer. In fact, HMV’s move has been one of the few incidents in the whole, vile affair to have prompted any sympathetic comments, with some social media users pointing out that the ones who will suffer from the ban will be the other members of Lostprophets, who announced their split in October.

Such was the level of vitriol aimed at Watkins that earlier this week, entirely accidentally, the hashtag ianwatkinsisinnocent started trending on Twitter. In fact, no one had been tweeting his innocence: the hashtag was coined by fans a year ago, when he was first charged. It began trending because people searching Twitter for Ian Watkins found it coming up in their searches, and leapt in to condemn the coinage. Even as I’ve been writing this paragraph, a new tweet has appeared: “Did I just see a hashtag #IanWatkinsIsInnocent WTFFFFFFFFFFF”

But if Watkins will never be rehabilitated, the reality is that the wider arts world is quick to forgive transgressors, even if their crimes are heinous. The sculptor, typeface designer and printmaker Eric Gill, for example, was revealed in a 1989 biography by Fiona MacCarthy to have sexually abused his children, had sex with his sister, and with his dog. “When my book came out, there was a backlash of revulsion,” MacCarthy says, “particularly from staunch Catholic admirers of his work. There was an outcry that his Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral should be removed. I must say, this did die down.” Whether it would have died down so quickly now, when horror at his deeds – even among those who would never have heard of Gill – would have spread across social media in a blaze of fury, is a moot point.

Crucial to it dying down, though, is the fact that Gill was an important artist. “My view is that great art lives,” MacCarthy says. “One must regard it in a different category. If you looked into the private lives of all the artists in our national galleries, where would it end. No one is defending [Gill’s sexual behaviour], but where would it all end? If you followed this through and did destroy from public view all examples of Gill’s work, our cultural life would be very much reduced.”

In fact, our cultural life is replete with art made by those whose personal lives bear little scrutiny. In the Nazi corner alone, we have the film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, the poet Ezra Pound and the philosopher Martin Heidegger, none of whom have been “decanonised”, despite critical caveats about their political views. In the world of film, Roman Polanski continued to make films, albeit from outside the US, despite fleeing a conviction for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles in 1977, ahead of sentencing. Why, then, was he able to continue making art?

“At the time, he had cultural capital in the bank,” Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw says. “And he could bombard you with details that he had served time, and that it was technicality because he had done a [plea bargain] deal and expected to be released [instead of facing imprisonment at sentencing]. And he had sympathy because of his wife having been murdered. People thought: ‘It’s a mess – is it something to do with his wife being murdered?'”

Professor John Sutherland perhaps sums up the division – or double standards, if you prefer – most succinctly. “We genuflect before real art and real culture. It will be a long time before they take down the Eric Gill work at Broadcasting House, whereas every Jimmy Savile picture at the BBC is now gone.” He even mentions recently editing a book by MP Shiel, a writer of supernatural and scientific romances, whose novels apparently often feature sexualised young heroines. It emerged in 2008 that Shiel, in 1914, was imprisoned for sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl. “And he hasn’t been decanonised,” Sutherland observes.

Lostprophets were, almost inarguably, neither real art nor real culture, and the nature of Watkins’s crimes and his admission of guilt precludes any ambiguity: these are not events that have been alleged and disputed, years after the fact; they are in the here and now and they are undeniable. Yet even within rock and pop, a status division exists. Led Zeppelin remain one of rock’s greatest bands (full disclosure: I have interviewed them), despite the knowledge that their guitarist, Jimmy Page, had a sexual relationship with Lori Maddox that began when she was 14. When Chuck Berry dies, the obituaries will likely dwell more on his role in the birth of rock’n’roll than on his conviction for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes. Even moving away from the end of pop music with claims to art, you can still go to HMV and buy albums by Gary Glitter, convicted of child sex offences, and Charles Manson and Burzum, both convicted of murder (HMV would not offer any comment when asked about this discrepancy).

All this raises one question: if art is to be deemed beyond the pale, who makes the decision, and how? Are there some crimes, like Watkins’s, so great that the art dies at the moment of revelation? Would F Scott Fitzgerald disappear from Waterstone’s if we learned he had been doing the same things as Watkins? Or would his talent and the distance from the events leave the reputation of The Great Gatsby unhindered? Is the level of public outrage the determining factor? Fiona MacCarthy, for one, thinks we should be very careful before we decide the sins of the artist invalidate the art. “I think it’s got harder and harder because the crimes are more reprehensible,” she says. “But we don’t want to arrive at a situation where we deprive ourselves of great works of art because of what Caravaggio did hundreds of years ago.

Read the original post by Michael Hann on Guardian Arts & Architecture

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