Judge the art, not the artist

If you're a culture lover then there's a lot less to enjoy once you start boycotting controversial artists

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The Independent Online

When the Gary Barlow tax row broke with calls to boycott the singer’s concerts and albums, the coverage was so big that you may have missed another call to boycott.

The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell led a protest, disrupting Valery Gergiev’s conducting of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Gergiev is a friend of Putin, and thus labelled a supporter of Putin’s stance on both anti-gay legislation and Ukraine.

So it has been a difficult week for those of us arranging our cultural diaries. Delete Barlow. Delete Gergiev. Jimmy Carr, tax avoider, is already off limits.

Our record collections have long since disposed of the likes of Gary Glitter and Jonathan King (if indeed they were ever part of our record collections).

Rolf Harris, if he was ever there, is also surplus to requirements. The BBC will certainly not allow us to watch old clips of Jimmy Savile presenting Top of the Pops, if indeed we ever wanted to. Bono’s moving his tax affairs from Ireland to the Netherlands has removed the humanitarian and radical shine from both himself and U2.

And don’t think it’s just a case of music and comedy. Who with a clear conscience can read a novel by Arthur Koestler, once revered as a literary social rights campaigner to rank alongside Orwell, but in more recent times exposed as a serial rapist? Is the cinema safe?

Not if you’re offended by the past history of multi-award winners Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. And let’s not even begin on maestro Herbert von Karajan and his membership of the Nazi Party. The list of boycott-worthy artists is a long and distinguished one.

What is a culture lover to do? Are those advocating boycotts perhaps a little too quick to conflate the artist and the art? Many artists in history have been less than worthy individuals.

But as lovers and critics of art, we simply cannot ignore good work because its creator or interpreter has transgressed. Von Karajan’s interpretations of Beethoven remain noteworthy, even if the conductor flirted reprehensibly with Nazism.

The publicity around Barlow’s misdemeanours has been bad enough to cause, thankfully, other celebrities to flee tax avoidance schemes. But his pleasing pop remains as listenable as it ever was, even if he has avoided his share of funding the nation’s schools and hospitals.

With the likes of Koestler, it is far more difficult. How seriously can one take novels advocating humanity and integrity when their creator acted in the most inhumane way? How can one laugh at Jimmy Carr’s anti-establishment jibes when he feathers his own nest?

In cases like these, where the artist’s stance is integral to his work, their own actions have made themselves redundant. We can reach the conclusion without resorting to a boycott that their work is too diminished to bother with.

But in cases such as Barlow and Gergiev, the work does not reflect the political leanings of creator or interpreter. It can be hard to avoid a visceral reaction on listening to work and thinking about the transgressions of the performer. But judge the art, not the artist, however much it may stick in the throat.

The Glasgow Prize?

The Turner Prize shortlist contains four artists. Three are alumni of Glasgow School of Art and two of those still call Glasgow their home. One of the shortlisted artists is nominated for a show he did in Brussels. Among the judges are the head of Glasgow International festival of contemporary art and the head of a contemporary art centre in Brussels.

I’m not saying there is necessarily anything wrong with this, and I’m sure that the judges hunted far and wide, even if they did end up finding the nominees in their own backyards.

Unfortunate timing

With what one might think rather unfortunate timing, Mahogany Opera Group opens its new production at the Hull Truck Theatre tomorrow, the same day that Hull City play Arsenal in the FA Cup Final at Wembley.

As if that were not sufficient distraction, Hull Kingston Rovers rugby team will be taking another lot of supporters, and Hull FC rugby club yet another lot, to play each other at a special tournament — in Manchester.

Mahogany Opera Group, meanwhile, will be hoping that the three groups of supporters will be tempted to forget local derbies and cup finals, and stay in their home city for HK Gruber’s Gloria: A Pigtale, described in its publicity as “ a darkly comic cabaret opera performed by five human sausages.” How can they resist?