As I slip Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks into the CD player for the umpteenth time, I’m comforted by the emotional reaction it provokes. It speaks to me. I know it. I connect with it. I understand it. I need it.
Dylan’s laying bare of his painful divorce is so stark that it’s difficult to separate the man from the art. It’s obvious the personal and the finished product are linked – the album title says it all. This is Bob at his most honest.
As a listener, Dylan’s lyrics and music over the years have seeped into my subconscious, helping to articulate my own feelings of love and loss. His genius offers refuge to mere mortals like myself who have not been blessed with his talent for transforming raw emotion into poetry. He has got me through some hard times.
So when news broke last week of allegations that he groomed and abused a girl of only 12 it pierced my heart. Not only is Dylan a cultural phenomenon and intellectual giant – and Nobel Laureate to boot – he’s my guy. He gets me. Please, not Bob. We’re compadres. But it’s not for me to judge guilt or innocence, and I wouldn’t dare.
However, it raises the age-old dilemma: is it possible to revere the art even if the artist is morally repugnant? There have been a surprising number of philosophical strategies developed to deal with this. After all, history is full of artists who were cruel, prejudiced, predatory or worse. Taken to the extreme, Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite, William Burroughs shot his wife dead and Phil Spector murdered an actress.
From the early 20th century New Critics argued the art had to stand on its own, and if it didn’t, that meant it wasn’t really good art. The artist was effectively dead. In contrast, more recent New Historicists argue to divorce art and artist is impossible – context is essential.
But what does it matter? And what if Dylan is found guilty? Do I throw his records in the bin? Self-censor and effectively brain-wash myself into unloving what I love? I know I won’t be able to do that.
If I’m honest, it’s my feelings that will be the deciding factor. I still listen to John Lennon who beat his first wife, I play Ryan Adams records despite his terrible treatment of aspiring musicians and I watch Bond films knowing Sean Connery hit his partner. Do I condone their behaviour? No.
Indeed, it’s arguably more difficult for actors to separate work from persona. Their physical being is the very essence of their art. The cinema-goer can only guess what lies behind Kevin Spacey’s eyes. The recording artist can hide behind the music to a degree, while the painter may create a masterpiece that is not necessarily a reflection of themselves.
But if art is judged on the artist’s character then where does it begin and end? If the art promotes racism or misogyny, then yes, cancelling both art and the artist is justifiable. But to assume all art must have followed a virtuous route for it to be valid is impossible. If the artist has crossed a line this should be exposed, and then we can draw our own conclusions. Simply deleting it only harms us.
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