To cancel or not to cancel (is not the question)

Imperfect people, beautiful artwork, and private fandom 

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Last month, on a rare foray into the froth and mire of social media, I spied a post from a fellow arts journalist. He had just found out that one of his musical heroes had been accused (and had largely admitted to) sexual misconduct with a number of much younger fans. He was wondering publicly whether he would now be impelled to disavow himself of his fandom. I would scarcely have registered his angst where it not for the fact that the transgressing rock star in question was Win Butler from the Grammy-winning Montreal band Arcade Fire.

I will confess a pinprick of discomfort. I have sung along to and lip-synced Butler’s lyrics on countless occasions. I have quoted the band in articles and shared their videos online. I have played their records to others and, most memorably, I fell for a beautiful girl to the sound of their 2007 album Neon Bible. To this day, recent events notwithstanding, I still love their first four LPs and, as it happens, I am listening to them as I type.

However, this article is not about Win Butler or the merits of the various claims in the misconduct case. Nor do I intend to weigh into the ideological hysteria surrounding so-called Cancel Culture. Some of you will perhaps be disappointed that I am neither an entirely upright canceller of less-than-perfect performers or a bilious right wing virtue signaller blowing off steam about the imminent collapse of common sense.

What my journo friend’s post pointed to was something more subtle and interesting – something not captured by reductionist news content or clickbait polemic.

To what extent, if at all, can we consider the deed as being separate from the doer?

In other words, if one day I sin am I forever to be considered a sinner? In one way, yes. Technically, a sinner is anyone who has sinned – namely, all of us – yet beyond the obvious and banal there is a hazy line. When contemplating art and artists the question is even more complex, if only because so many creatives insert themselves fully into their work and make a big deal about doing so.

I say this because I live it. As a writer, director and amateur photographer I am on record as declaring my work to be nigh indistinguishable from the spectacle of self. Autobiographical barely covers it. Indeed, if one were being ruthless, it could reasonably be argued that everything I have ever done is little more than self-aggrandising ego drama disguised as love letters, rock videos and blog posts. (And I know I am not alone in this; although I cannot speak for the contentious Mr Butler.)

Though Butler may be guilty of many things – including living a private life at odds with his virtuous public image –  we can still consider his art as a distinct phenomenon, no matter how ‘personal’ it is. For just as I am not my words, Win is not his catchy choruses, Mies van der Rohe cannot be entirely encapsulated in the beautiful geometry of the Seagram Building, and Nikki Gemmell is much more than the tormented spouse she so brilliantly revealed in The Bride Stripped Bare. Etcetera, etcetera.

Aside from being somewhat obvious, the point here is not so much about the artist as the audience. Our experience, (fandom, etc), is not with the human being but with the artefact(s). Deeper still, with a personal and mostly private experience of that artefact. My Arcade Fire is not yours, let alone the band’s.  

As a fan, I have invested in the art and, by default, into a fantasy I have constructed about the artist. When I sing along I am the singer. Therefore, when the real life singer sins, it feels like a breach of trust. It is the discomfort of reconciling my ‘love’ of the person with my distaste for the act. Drilling down, there is a sneaking suspicion – lodged like a tiny thorn in a deep and unvisited corner of my side – that via the agency of my love I am either approving of the misdemeanour and/or feeling ashamed about having chosen the wrong recipient of such love. Because our relationship to the art we treasure is so often personal and emotional, and tied to memories and other intimate associations, there is a sense (however irrational) that the infractions of the artist are our own bad actions.

The hero is a stand-in self. Just as we borrow their glories, we feel the pinch of their flaws.

Yet, am I truly signing off on or taking vicarious responsibility for Butler’s sexual misconduct? Or Morrissey’s views on race, Riefenstahl’s links to Nazism, and Picasso’s penchant for bullfighting? Not at all. But do I still like the work? Yes.

Perhaps here I am being lazy; even self-serving. If, by some chance, my recently published novel1 were to rocket up the bestseller charts, would I want my flawed behaviour or out-of-date opinions eviscerated in public? How would I feel if I knew that once dedicated readers decided that one or another of my various sins rendered my book unreadable?

Then again, are we not accountable, if only to ourselves, for our words and deeds? Being a violinist or a sculptor is not a free pass. If I make a gorgeous record but murder my next door neighbour do I get ‘time off’ because the judge thinks I write heartfelt lyrics?

It also reasonable to ask whether those who profit from the work of artists should knowingly cash in on and continue to feather the nests of people guilty of assaulting their partners or ripping off the rest of the crew. We might even ask the same question when someone is merely accused – for although this can (and is) taken to extremes it is likewise true that abusers are afforded cover by the blind eyes, zipped lips and the reflexive disbelief of those around them. Perpetrators often count on our silence and incredulity. This is as true of your neighbours and workmates as it is of A-listers and inbred aristocrats.

While some trumpet unambiguous answers, I cannot. Ethics, commerce, celebrity, fandom, and human fallibility are a complex and volatile mix, and the sandpit squabbling of serial cancellers and conservative dummy spitters is not fit for the purpose of teasing these things apart. Aside from who may be right or wrong, the tenor of the Cancel Culture fracas is not simply immature but plays out as yet more dehumanising us/them nastiness.

Placards, memes, and You Tube rants won’t help us determine whether we can, or should, separate art (deed) from artist (doer).

From a purely ‘arts’ perspective, we are used to placing individual works into a ‘body of work’ or artist career context, and of interpreting said artists in the context of movements, isms or genres. Further still, we have a history of regarding trends in art and aesthetics against a broader socio-cultural canvas. A single piece of work never exists in a vacuum, and neither does its maker. Although this often means we are left with a porous doer/deed boundary, it is also clear that we have a long-established tradition of adoring the picture without liking the painter.

While you might argue that this is simply a convenient compartmentalisation, or evidence that beauty is used as an excuse for ugliness, it is nonetheless true that we can engage with the Mona Lisa without needing to pre-approve everything about Leonardo. (Just as we use light bulbs without being Edison apologists or attend our local places of worship without being fans of witch burning and suicide bombing.)

And so, here I am, listening to Arcade Fire and still loving it. In fact, not one of these songs seems any less listenable. I think of the woman I adored as we sang along to No Cars Go and the memory is not tainted by the frontman’s fuck ups. I will dance with that girl in my mind until I have no mind for dancing.   

Yes, Win Butler misbehaved. Badly. He has partially confessed to using his star power to make sexual advances to young fans and, to be fair, they have accused him of more than he has been prepared to admit. From my room on the other side of the world I do not know what happened between them – but I do know that Butler will not be the last celebrity to use their cachet to force themselves onto others and to act as if their status entitles them to unfettered access. This is a sad fact of human behaviour, and my ceremonial burning of Funeral will not alter that or unmolest Butler’s victims.

To those young people I say: I applaud your courage in speaking out and I hope that you can get a measure of justice and healing from the process. I trust that those who are special to you believe you and that abstract others like me do not add insult to injury. Only you and Win Butler know the truth, the rest of us are merely point scoring. For what it may be worth, I apologise if anything I have said here has made things worse for you. I will never excuse or downplay sexual violence or predation. You may perhaps be able to imagine why.2

In the end, callous though it may sound, the songs are not the crime. Furthermore, they are not Butler’s, nor their co-authors’, because once the record is released it belongs to the fans. As a writer I understand that my work is completed by the reader. If you are still reading this, you are doing so in your own voice. All art is co-created.

To those who would take a more punitive line, I would remind you that perfection is a cross to which all of us can be nailed. I do not offer this as a get out clause, either for Butler or myself, but before we seek recourse to the hurling of stones let us remember that our house is not only made of glass but that the glass is also a mirror.

Ultimately, it likely behoves us to accede to the truism: never meet your heroes. They might turn out to be a tad too human.

1: The novel in question is called The Last Summer of Hair, a copy of which you can download or order a paperback copy of right here.

2: To clarify, although I have not been molested myself I have been the target of unwanted sexual aggression and, more importantly, close to and intimate with many survivors of rape and child sex abuse. As a result I have felt enough of the impact on them to bruise badly myself, and to feel the scars manifesting in our relationships. You might dismiss this as collateral damage but it is still damage. Btw, I claim no specific virtue as a result of this.   

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