One of my biggest and silliest sources of Christmas joy is the video for Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s version of Little Drummer Boy. It begins with a skit – a bit of acting so painfully clumpy that it makes my old teachers’ end-of-term comedy assembly look like high art. (For reasons I still can’t fathom, it would always end with them dressed as hippies and dancing to the Age Of Aquarius.) Anyway, Bowie pretends to be Crosby’s neighbour, wanting a go on the piano, delivering the timeless line “Hello! My name’s David Bowie! I live down the road.” Bing plays himself as a gentle older fellow who isn’t so advanced in years that he can’t appreciate the best of modern music – but the pair agree that the old songs are the best, before launching into their duet.
In 1983, Crosby’s son Gary published a memoir detailing the physical abuse he had experienced at the hands of his father. He wrote, “I’d get bent over and my pants taken down and beat till I bled. He was never an enraged, insane man. He was very methodical.” While I legally have to point out that Gary’s account has been disputed, it’s chilling to compare the benevolent character his father is playing on screen with the alleged reality of Christmas in the Crosby household.
2018 is strange. The writer and actor Lena Dunham is repeatedly “cancelled” for sharing her problematic views and “apologising but never learning”, as a recent profile put it, but Crosby, a man who is alleged to have purposefully made his own child bleed, is still seen as the harmless spirit of Christmas. Another face I keep seeing this December is that of Johnny Depp. His ex-wife Amber Heard accuses him of horrific acts of violence, yet I see Depp on my television selling perfume at least once a day. I’m pretty sure that families across the country will gather together on Boxing Day to watch him playing a pirate. We argue with each other passionately and constantly, but we’re not getting anywhere. Is it ever OK to separate the art from the artist? More importantly, if we don’t, and if we treat everyone who is alleged to be a violent abuser with horror and disdain, will we have any art left?
The columnist Suzanne Moore recently wrote that if you’re a woman who loves culture, all of your pleasures are guilty. There is a sense that you’re letting the side down by enjoying the work of a “monstrous man”, in a way that is somehow worse than the initial actions of the perpetrator. “Sure, I would prefer great art to be made by people who adhere to my own personal belief system and who are kind to those around them,” writes Moore. “But I know this not to be the case.”
I believe we’re at the very beginning of a positive cultural shift. We are recognising and questioning the fact that our world view has been shaped by art created by artists who were also abusers. We are starting to realise that we have excused these people for their crimes for so long because our understanding of ourselves and our beliefs has been defined by people – mostly men – who wanted us to believe in their power, and wanted us to think that their talent earned them the opportunity to take whatever they wanted, at everyone else’s expense.
However, I do worry that “cancel culture” won’t resolve the problems that we’re currently facing. It gives the work of monstrous men an odd cachet – it suggests they are compelling beasts, whose like will never be seen again – while creating a climate that makes it harder than ever to be a new artist, because everyone who ever creates anything is on an instant and stringent trial. We know that women are under an enormous amount of pressure to look perfect – but “cancel culture” adds to that pressure. We are only permitted to enjoy the art of women if they are found to be morally perfect.
Great art should be a reflection of humanity at its very best, its very worst, but most importantly, its fullest. We need more art, and more space for art
More worryingly, the work of women is constantly under scrutiny from the most powerful social microscope. This week, I have seen people criticising Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Rita Ora for perceived moral failures, typically because they are found to be either insufficiently inclusive in their work, or because they have been accused of cultural appropriation. Of course we want art to be as inclusive as possible, but to the best of my knowledge none of these women have purposefully made anyone bleed. The criticism rarely promotes positive discourse or improves the work. Every attack is personal.
There are ways around this. From George Eliot to Elena Ferrante, women have found ways of creating while concealing their identity for centuries. It’s proof that we can’t make art without some guarantee of freedom and safety. But then, think of the efforts that people go to in order to unmask those women who work under a pseudonym, and deprive us of what little freedom we have. Women never have the luxury of being separated from their work – they define it and are defined by it. If we carry on like this, we won’t end up with better art. We will end up with none, because women will be too weary and frightened to keep making any.
Great art should be a reflection of humanity at its very best, its very worst, but most importantly, its fullest. We need more art, and more space for art – which means more space for women to dream, create and explore, safe in the knowledge that they will not be damned by their mistakes in their work or in their life. If we can do this, we can guarantee that the next generation can enjoy a canon filled with the work of women – and they don’t have to rely on the music, films and books of monstrous men, as we do, because it’s almost all we have.