DW: Ms. Lotter, after the documentary “Leaving Neverland” was broadcast in the USA, in which two men report that they were sexually abused by Michael Jackson as children, numerous international radio stations took his hits off their programs. How do you rate this reaction?
Maria-Sibylla Lotter: I find this reaction terrifying. Even if it makes sense to understand what an artist does as a kind of quality judgment for his art, a boycott makes no sense because raising public accusations against people cannot be equated with a legal judgment. And such a reaction naturally signals: If the good reputation is somehow questioned through public accusations, this can immediately result in the destruction of an artistic existence – at least for people who are not already established like Michael Jackson.
The allegations are not new, there have been two trials against Michael Jackson in which he was acquitted. There are now the very detailed descriptions in the documentary, but no new evidence. Why do many view Jackson’s legacy differently than before?
Maria-Sibylla Lotter, professor of ethics
I think the radio stations fear that the clarity with which the abuse is apparently shown in this documentary will affect people emotionally differently than if they were just reading about it in the newspaper. The broadcasters anticipate that in the next few weeks or months, people may have these images in mind when they hear a Michael Jackson song. I just find it disturbing that one thinks that these mixed feelings can no longer be expected of adult people today.
What is the purpose of a boycott?
This arises less from one’s own moral conviction than from fear of public opinion, against which one would rather not take a position. With censorship, however, one actually takes the side of the morally indignant. At the moment there is obviously the idea that if you have mixed feelings while reading or listening to works of art, this disqualifies these works of art.
Possibly a crime scene: Michael Jackson’s fabled Neverland ranch in California
Banning the art of a person who has acted dubious, immoral or even criminal in private means equating the person with his art. Is that appropriate?
No. How strange this is is easy to see if you compare the situation to science: imagine someone just won the Nobel Prize in economics and it turns out that the person molested little boys. Nobody would think of declaring their economic books unsuitable. When it comes to art, we obviously have different ideas, which certainly also have something to do with needs that we address to art.
Have these needs changed?
In the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, the prevailing idea was that the artist was living a different life, a more dangerous life without rules, which has been associated with the term genius since the late 18th century: someone is not the valid one Subject to norms, but creates its own. That is apparently obsolete today, one now associates completely different wishes with artists.
You should remain the genius, but at the same time be the nice neighbors next door?
Exactly, they should even be particularly exemplary. This is also noticeable in the pressure that actors in the USA are exposed to in view of the constantly changing and highly demanding norms of political correctness. They have to apologize publicly if they play a member of a minority or a paralyzed person and thus, according to what I believe are rather absurd new codes, which actually no longer allow acting at all, take away the role of a person who belongs to that minority or group.
Banish or risk an uncomfortable feeling: Kevin Spacey in his star role as Frank Underwood
When we see a work of art or a film or hear a song, we think we can experience who the artist is as a person. Isn’t that a coherent expectation that we as viewers associate with art?
That’s an interesting point. With a singer who sings with her whole body, we see how she feels in the moment and we believe that her personality shows in her vocal expression. A writer’s novel also expresses her own life experience. Or a rock musician climbs into mood while writing a song. Of course it shows fragments of a personality, but it is misleading to equate what is expressed with the moral person.
So we exaggerate the people in our imagination when we see them as artists in a film or music video?
I think so. We also project moral idealization needs onto people who arouse our admiration. Kevin Spacey was best known for playing the villain in House of Cards. An actor who is loved precisely because he plays a particularly cunning, absolutely unscrupulous person, is then cut out of an almost finished film because it turns out that in his private life he is the sleazy uncle next door who can’t help it to keep laying hands on young men’s thighs. That’s crazy. We want to see the evil fictional character because he is more attractive than the man next door. And when someone turns out to be a very common grocer, that person has to be removed from perception.
Accusation of sexism: The Gomringer poem “Avenidas” at the Alice Salomon University in Berlin was painted over.
When reality catches up with fiction, it pulls us out of our escapism. Do we want to avoid that?
I agree. When we know it’s only in the movie, then we enjoy the viciousness of these characters. But we are no longer ready to accept the usual greasiness of such a molester when it comes to a person whom we on the other hand admire as a great actor. The desire not to be confronted with unpleasant truths under any circumstances is currently attached to this aesthetic admiration. Why not see Kevin Spacey and feel uncomfortable at the same time, remembering that as a real person, he’s probably a pretty uncomfortable character? That may be an ugly feeling, but it’s a realistic perception.
Apart from the boycotts, it is to be welcomed that issues such as racism or sexual abuse are debated more openly in society.
Forced into a role as a child: Michael Jackson
Of course, the good thing about such occasions is that they trigger discussions that can lead to a sensitization of moral perception, but as a side effect often also to hysterical reactions. I mean cases such as the well-known fate of the Eugen Gomringer poem at the Berlin university, which fell victim to a discussion about sexual harassment that was in itself welcomed, but also partly turned into hysteria. And it makes no sense to anticipate possible reactions from radio listeners and to pretend to be a moral institution that has to protect the audience’s delicate feelings through moral censorship.
Maria-Sibylla Lotter is a philosopher and professor for ethics and aesthetics at the Ruhr University Bochum. Her research areas include the ethics of everyday life and the interaction between philosophy and art. She is currently a fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research at Bielefeld University.
Interview conducted by Torsten Landsberg.