Should we enjoy good art made by bad people?

Lili Bidwell 23 December 2016

Among the many Christmas albums trotted out every year, perhaps one of the most enduring is Phil Spector’s ‘A Christmas Gift for You.’  According to Rolling Stone, it ranks at number 142 in their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Phil Spector was one of the greatest innovators in music in the 50s and 60s, using a technique called the ‘wall of sound’ to create a rich and powerful tonal quality in his music. He worked with the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, the Ramones, and other chart-topping artists and bands. He was celebrated – and still is – for his talent and bold approach to rethinking music production.

In February 2003, actress Lana Clarkson was shot dead by Phil Spector in his mansion in Hollywood. In 2009, after a mistrial, he was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to 19 years in jail.

I’ve listened to this album every Christmas. When I heard about Spector’s past, I felt it took away, just a bit, from the cheerful Christmas spirit of the album. I couldn’t get the thought of what Spector had done out of my mind as I listened to the album.

Learning more about an artist undeniably affects the way we listen to their music. Sometimes what they do can colour their music forever. Phil Spector is only one example in a long list of artists who have become associated not with their talents or skill, but with their misdeeds.

However, to dismiss Phil Spector because of his actions would stop you from appreciating his extraordinary contribution to modern music and a whole host of iconic songs that he produced including ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ by George Harrison and the Beatles, respectively. Should his actions really affect our appreciation of his art? After all, appreciating his music does not in any way condone what he did.

To take a more recent example: in 2009, it was revealed that Chris Brown had assaulted his then girlfriend Rihanna. Chris Brown had had two double platinum albums and was at the height of his career. It didn’t take too long however before his fans appeared to have moved on from the assault. In 2011, his album F.A.M.E reached number one on the Billboard 200 and he continues to release popular songs and win awards for his music. 

Is there anything wrong with this? After all, appreciating his music in no way diminishes his actions or condones them. His art is entirely separate from his behaviour.

However, with some crimes, it feels impossible to ignore them entirely. While logically I know there is no reason why an artist’s music should be tainted by their actions, my emotional response to it is often changed irrevocably when I learn what they have done. As a result, I personally find it difficult to get beyond what Chris calls ‘the incident with Rihanna’ and I struggle to appreciate his music as I would if I didn’t know what he had done.

But then why is it generally deemed acceptable to listen to the music of Chris Brown but not acceptable to watch the comedy of Bill Cosby? With Bill Cosby, whose name has become so associated with allegations of sexual abuse (which, it is important to point out, have yet to be taken to trial) it seems generally accepted that for a TV channel to show his sitcom, ‘The Cosby Show’, would be in bad taste. Perhaps it is the sheer number of allegations against Cosby, his total lack of repentance, and the horrific stories of what he has done that turn the public against him so much more viscerally than Chris Brown. While Chris Brown’s crime is certainly vile and I personally find it hard to see past, there has been less of a long-lasting reaction against Brown than Cosby.

Perhaps then the question of whether we reject an artist based on their misconduct is down to our emotional response. We can argue rationally as much as we like about how art should be separate from the person who creates it, but fundamentally, art is about our individual emotional response. Since art is not governed by logic, the question of whether we can appreciate the art of ‘bad’ people must surely come down to our own personal, instinctive reaction to what an artist has done or been accused of.