The Romans called it Damnatio memoriae – the condemnation of memory – and viewed it as a punishment worse than death. Wrong doers would literally be erased from history for the crimes they had committed – removed from official accounts, inscriptions and documents as if they had never existed.
We still condemn memories – Kevin Spacey was the star of the completed film All The Money in the World last year but following multiple allegations of sexual harassment all his scenes were removed and reshot using Christopher Plummer in his place.
Following fresh allegations of sexual abuse in the documentary Leaving Neverland, Michael Jackson’s music is being removed from many of the world’s radio stations prompted by listener complaints.
It’s a natural and understandable response: in the just released documentary, two men who were part of Jackson’s entourage allege that they were sexually abused in a most violent and horrific manner by the singer while they were children. But if we are to act on the basis that the sins (alleged or proven) of the artist necessarily invalidate the art, we must consider who gets to decide that an artist’s work is no longer fit for public consumption? And should the level of public outrage be the overriding factor in banning an artist? There are hypocrisies and inconsistencies aplenty here. There is one rule for the popular culture figures of “low art” and another for the revered icons of “high art”.
We now know that the BBC DJ, Jimmy Savile, was one of Britain’s most prolific predatory sex offenders. All traces of his existence have been expunged from the BBC’s archives.
Following the BBC’s in-house removal of Savile, many called on the broadcaster to also remove the prominent sculpture of Prospero and Ariel which adorns the BBC’s headquarters.
BBC DJ John Peel is an adored cultural figure. During the 1960s, Peel married a 15-year-old girl in the US
The sculptor in question, Eric Gill, admitted in his personal diaries that he had had sexual relationships with two of his pubescent daughters, an incestuous relationship with his sister and even had sex with his family dog.
Despite public disquiet, the BBC released a statement in 2014 saying: “The statue of Ariel and Prospero on the front of Broadcasting House stands as a metaphor for broadcasting, executed by one of the major British artists whose work has been widely displayed in leading UK museums and galleries. There are no plans to remove or replace the sculptures.”
The BBC DJ, John Peel (who died in 2004) is an adored cultural figure, who has long since been canonised by the musical establishment. During the 1960s, Peel married a 15-year-old girl in the US (in Texas, where it was still legal at the time). Peel also candidly admitted that while working on a radio station in Texas he engaged in sexual acts with a minor: “Girls used to queue up outside, oral sex they were particularly keen on. I remember one of my regular customers, as it were, turned out to be 13,” he said in an interview.
In 2012, a UK woman, Jane Nevin, claimed that Peel had got her pregnant when she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Yet, the BBC named a wing of their building after him. He has blue plaques erected to his name, arts centres named after him, even a stage at the Glastonbury festival.
Peel’s elevated cultural standing seemingly insulated him from the opprobrium dealt out to other entertainment figures. He was loved by the right people - and the right people make the rules as to whether someone should be erased from history or be subject to fawning, uncritical tributes.
David Bowie and Led Zeppelin are untouchable cultural figures – critically lauded for their music genius. Does that allow us to shrug off the claims by women that Bowie and Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page had sex with them when they were just 14 years of age?
The film director Roman Polanski and the disgraced pop star Gary Glitter have both been found guilty of having unlawful sex with 13-year-old girls. Glitter (who also faced numerous other charges) has been erased from musical history, Polanski seems to go from award ceremony to award ceremony picking up baubles testifying to his cinematic greatness.
Real art and real culture
As the academic and author John Sutherland told the Guardian, “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”.
The cultural gatekeepers write these rules and delineate accordingly: the higher the art, the lesser the crime, it appears.
If Woody Allen made frat-boy humour films would he have been treated differently for marrying his one time step-daughter?
Last week, an interview the actor John Wayne gave in 1971 resurfaced. In it, Wayne expressed egregious racist and homophobic beliefs. But by the same token we could mine through quotes by cultural figures from the worlds of literature and philosophy – Heidegger, TS Eliot and WB Yeats to name just a few – that reveal similarly hateful political beliefs. But we rarely if ever do so.
Going further, and if you were to examine the personal lives of some of the artists whose works hang in the National Gallery, there would be a hostile picket outside every day of the week.
The allegations contained in 'Leaving Neverland' are uncorroborated
There is no simple prescriptive solution as to how to deal with art (whether musical, cinematic, visual or literary) which has been created by someone who has committed, or been accused of, serious wrongdoing.
Our age, gender, background and the severity of the transgression committed will always impact on our reasoning. As will the consideration as to whether the artist is alive or dead - will they benefit financially from our support?
One consideration is not to remove or in any way censor art but to be open and piercingly honest about the biography of its creator.
And if we are to be open and honest about Michael Jackson, we find that despite being the most investigated pop star who has ever lived he has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing. Whether you find this ludicrous or not, is not the point. It’s simply a legal fact.
Yes, damning accusations swirl around him and will continue to do so to the extent that he has become the modern day equivalent of a music-hall joke.
The other side of the current Michael Jackson story is that the allegations contained in Leaving Neverland are uncorroborated. The two accusers have radically changed their stories over the years and had previously failed in an attempt to sue the Jackson estate for $1.5 billion in damages. These facts too are part of his biography.
John Peel admitted to a sexual act with a 13-year-old.
Yet, we still celebrate “John Peel Music Day” while Michael Jackson’s music is now deemed unfit to be heard.