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Can I revile the artist but revel in the art? | Column
Can a morally corrupt person create an inspiring work of art?
In this courtroom sketch, R. Kelly briefly addresses Judge Ann Donnelly during his sentencing in federal court, June 29, 2022, in New York.
In this courtroom sketch, R. Kelly briefly addresses Judge Ann Donnelly during his sentencing in federal court, June 29, 2022, in New York. [ ELIZABETH WILLIAMS | AP ]
Published Jul. 7

Walking toward the coffee shop the other day, I noticed a group of children headed up St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue for an outing at a local museum. The kids were animated, but well behaved. One boy, maybe 9 or 10, skipped and then leaped forward. He was singing: “I believe I can fly ...”

It happened in a second and startled me, for it was that very song that was in my head in recent days. And I knew why. The artist who wrote and performed that great anthem of hope and aspiration, R. Kelly, had just been sentenced to a long prison term.

Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark

At the age of 55, Kelly had been on suicide watch after being sentenced to 30 years. His crimes included racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child, kidnapping, bribery and sex trafficking.

I’d bet that the young man who was singing Kelly’s song, which won three Grammy Awards, had no idea of the criminality of the artist who created it. I envied him.

I loved that song. Can I still love it?

I am stuck in the quicksand of one of the defining cultural problems of the day. Can a morally corrupt person create an inspiring work of art? Can I hate the artist’s sins, and embrace the work they create?

The answer to the first question is clearly yes. If we were to cancel morally corrupt artists, we would have to cut the heritage of Western culture by half.

The second question poses a tougher problem. I was having breakfast with a friend one morning with the music of Michael Jackson playing in the background. This was right after two men testified in a documentary how the King of Pop had molested them when they were children. “I can’t enjoy his music anymore,” said my friend. The song, ironically, was “Pretty Young Thing.” I got his point, but I could not help but tap my foot to the rhythm.

“I Believe I Can Fly” is a magnificent song, and I don’t want to give it up. It was commissioned by none other than basketball legend Michael Jordan, who needed a theme song for a movie he was making. Space Jam is a fun flick, loved by kids and grownups alike, populated by human athletes and actors and a team of Looney Tune cartoon characters, led by the irrepressible Bugs Bunny. Its musical score is elevated by R. Kelly’s creation.

If I can’t listen to the song anymore, does that mean I can no longer watch that movie?

When I am trying to navigate the rough waters of an ethical dilemma, I often call upon my longtime friend Arthur Caplan, perhaps the most influential expert on biomedical ethics in the last half century. He escapes the omnivorous solemnity of his job by having a great sense of humor and a practical mindset.

Here’s what he once told me: “Evil, bad, pernicious, bigoted, criminal and disgusting people create things of wonder, beauty and even inspiration all the time. The moral question is how important, unique and encouraging of awful behavior is the work. I think we can and surely do ‘use’ morally suspect work in science, medicine, the arts, humanities and media all the time. But we should acknowledge the flaws and misdeeds explicitly of the ‘authors,’ explain the use, and note that we won’t whitewash the evil in pursuit of utilizing the good.”

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With the help of my pastor, I found another analogy that helps me think through my problem. We know by now that there are enough corrupt ministers out there, that at least one of them has blessed us, baptized our children or given us communion. But wait! If they are really bad people, can they administer the sacraments? Do the blessings actually count? The ancient moral theology of the Catholic Church says yes.

Back in the early history of the church, two factions in Northern Africa tried to cancel each other out. They argued that the priests of the other faction were so filled with sin that they could not administer the sacraments. They might say the words, but the good magic would not work.

Along came the great St. Augustine to the rescue. He said, in essence, you got it all wrong, people. Just do the work! If a priest says the words and pours the water, you are baptized. And thank God for that.

Can I enjoy old episodes of the Cosby Show? Or any Woody Allen movie? Should I teach the fiction of J.D. Salinger or attend an exhibit of Picasso, two artists who had troubling relationships with young women?

I am not making an argument here for self-hypnosis or rationalization, a kind of radical compartmentalization. If the content of a work is morally corrupt, then, of course, we should not promote it, or enrich its creator with our purchase or participation.

But, if I am having a bad day, and if YouTube leads me to a version of “I Believe I Can Fly,” and I listen to the lyrics “I used to think that I could not go on / And life was nothing but an awful song / But now I know the meaning of true love / I’m leaning on the everlasting arms,” and, near the end, the orchestra blends in to support a full gospel choir, and my spirit soars …

I know the person who created that work is in a jail cell where he belongs. But I feel I can embrace the miracle that such a criminal could leave at least one good thing behind. That thing no longer belongs to him. It belongs to us if we still want it.

Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at rclark@poynter.org.

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