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How to separate a deplorable artist from his art? We do it all the time

Michael Jackson is one of many renowned artists accused of criminal behavior.Vincent AMALVY/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

Jake Brennan named “Disgraceland,” his true-crime podcast, after a contemptuous nickname for the Mississippi home of the rock ’n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. The show’s introductory episode covered the mysterious death of Lewis’s fifth wife. Brennan first heard that story when he was 15, he says, “and it never left me. It just seemed insane that someone as lauded as he was could have gotten away with that, and with the nickname ‘The Killer.’ ”

In “Disgraceland,” the Boston musician has recounted sordid tales from the music world, including the motel murder of Sam Cooke, the tragic romance of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and the drugs-and-shotgun incident that landed James Brown in prison in 1988. In October, Brennan will unveil a new podcast called “Rocka Rolla,” which will take a deep dive into the troubled life and murder conviction of record producer Phil Spector.


Despite his seemingly insatiable appetite for all kinds of rock ’n’ roll destruction, Brennan says he has no plans to devote an episode of “Disgraceland” to Gary Glitter, the glam rock singer who has been convicted twice for sex crimes against minors. “I try to stay away from the kid stuff,” Brennan says.

We’ve all got our limits. When it comes to the case of Michael Jackson, however, the public seems genuinely agonized. How do we reconcile the work of a globally beloved pop superstar with the continuing allegations about his despicable private behavior?

Lately, in the transparent social media age, we’ve been inundated with unsavory revelations: the various cruelties and abuses of R. Kelly, Ryan Adams, and the comedian Louis C.K., to name three high-profile cases. For those so inclined, it’s easy enough to carve the work of such artists from our lives, like a series of skin lesions. But what do we do when we’ve collectively internalized the whole body of work?


Musically speaking, Kelly hasn’t been particularly relevant since the George W. Bush administration. And if you liked C.K.’s “Louie,” the sitcom from his erstwhile friend and collaborator Pamela Adlon called “Better Things” is, well, better.

But Jackson’s artistic legacy is monumental, pretty much universally renowned. Earlier this month, on the same Sunday when the Internet was convulsing over the impending premiere of “Leaving Neverland” — the HBO documentary that makes brutal allegations about Jackson’s attraction to young boys — a Jackson 5 song played as a commercial bumper during a nationally televised NBA game. However you feel about the testimony in “Leaving Neverland,” it’s very hard to imagine a world without “I Want You Back.”

How (or whether) to separate great artists from their messy, sometimes criminal private lives has been a dilemma far longer than we’ve had outrage hashtags, of course. Picasso was awful to the women in his life. Frank Sinatra was close pals with mobsters. Chuck Berry settled a class- action lawsuit that charged him with installing a video camera in the women’s bathroom of his restaurant.

It’s all but impossible to expunge the work of admired creators who turn out to be despicable people, argues Brennan. For him, the key to navigating problematic artists is simple awareness and empathy for the victims, not denying the work they’ve given the world. The film producer Harvey Weinstein has been exposed as a truly revolting person, but as Brennan points out, the films he made with Miramax, from “The Piano” to “Pulp Fiction,” practically defined ’90s cinema. (Brennan does, however, admit he’s had a hard time watching “The Cosby Show” since Bill Cosby was sentenced last year for sexual assault.)


Mark Anastasio, program manager at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, says that Woody Allen, years after he was first accused of inappropriate contact with an adopted daughter, remains a source of controversy in the #MeToo era.

“We did get some audience pushback when we showed ‘Wonder Wheel,’ ” Allen’s most recent theatrical release (2017), Anastasio says. “The turnout was a lot less than opening weekends for his previous films.”

Still, he believes that it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves. When the Coolidge screened “Rosemary’s Baby,” the 1968 Roman Polanski thriller, as part of a themed midnight film series, it drew “incredibly well — over 200 people.” Polanski has avoided the United States since 1978, when he was due to be sentenced after pleading guilty to statutory rape.

“That is the right place for that movie — framing the work of art itself,” Anastasio says. “I don’t think the time is right to put on a full Polanski retrospective. But to highlight specific works and put them in context, as long as people want to come see them, we’re not going to censor that.”

Ellen Winner is a psychology professor at Boston College and the author of “How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration.” She thinks there are several factors we weigh when determining how to approach the work of a revered artist who has been revealed as a disreputable person.


Winner has studied the psychology of forgery — why we are wired to value an original over a reproduction, even when we can’t tell the difference. She says our reaction to work by unpleasant people is likely similar: “There’s a contamination effect, a ‘yuck’ factor.”

We’re also inclined to imagine a spectrum of bad behavior, she says. Picasso, for instance, made a habit of personal cruelty, but he wasn’t (to our knowledge) a criminal, and he didn’t belong to a hate group.

“We often forgive the Picassos,” Winner says. “Well, we don’t forgive them, but we say, ‘This is the price of genius.’ ”

In a new book, “Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music,” John Corbett suggests that James Brown’s lifelong pattern of domestic abuse is a very unfortunate byproduct of the demand for control that fueled his musical genius.

“If I’m honest, much as I wish it weren’t true, I think the two are tangled up together,” Corbett writes. “Brown was a narcissistic weirdo, sometimes in a fascinating way, always in a manner that put him at the center of his concerns. . . . That kind of bullying is how Brown worked, with contemptuous misogyny flamboyantly staged against utter musical originality.”

People still want to experience Brown’s legendary live show, more than a dozen years after his death. Next month, the Regent Theatre in Arlington brings back a live tribute show featuring Brown protege Tony Wilson as the “young James Brown.”


After Jackson’s sudden death in 2009, Rhode Island dancer and jack-of-all-trades Mark Fisher began impersonating the King of Pop. Over the past decade, he’s made a nice living at it. In spite of the recent debate about “Leaving Neverland,” he claims he hasn’t seen any drop-off in business. Fisher says he’s booking appearances as far out as December.

“I’ve got weddings coming up,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like it’s affecting my show.”

He’s heard the charges against Jackson before, though not all that often. Once, while performing, he was confronted by two drunks who called him a pedophile.

“Do you think you’re talking to the real Michael?” he replied. Mostly, his audiences just want to celebrate the music and showmanship of the late entertainer, not think too much about what kind of person he was.

On Fisher’s schedule this weekend is a DJ gig at “Bustin’ Out,” a long-running dance party held at the Providence Marriott. In the past, he says, he’s found a receptive audience for R. Kelly’s 2003 hit “Step in the Name of Love.” “It’s a great line-dance song,” he says. Now, however, given the charges against Kelly, he’ll be boycotting it.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.