How we warp our moral code for genius
Michael Jackson. Credit: Jim Ruyman-Pool / Getty   

Should geniuses be exempted from the moral codes that guide the rest of society? It is a question we have been hovering around recently.

Since Leaving Neverland, aired earlier this month, fans of Michael Jackson have been fiercely defending their hero from the latest round of paedophilia accusations. Yet that documentary merely bolstered what everybody but the most die-hard Jackson fans had known for years. Michael Jackson’s relationship with children was stomach-turning at best, and the rumours were compelling.

Given the court cases and the multi-million dollar pay-offs, it was one of the most open secrets – and scandals – of modern stardom. But, along with his ability to change colour in front of the eyes of the world, the public always made allowances for a simple reason. Michael Jackson gave us “Thriller”, “Bad” and “Billie Jean”.

He’s a clear-cut beneficiary of ‘the genius exemption’. This moral ‘get out of jail free card’ has existed throughout artistic history, it is only now that it appears that the exemption – awkward and compromising as it always was – might itself have become unacceptable.

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Accusations like those made against Michael Jackson would have ended the career of anybody less talented. When similar charges were levelled at Gary Glitter, the world dropped him and his work even before the law had taken its course. It turned out to be remarkably easy to live without “Doing alright with the boys” and “I’m the leader of the gang (I am)”. Whereas it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine any radio station, wedding or birthday disco where Michael Jackson’s back-catalogue would be put onto the same ‘do not play’ list as Gary Glitter’s.

The social forces working behind the genius get-out are fascinating, not least because they are so rarely aired. There has, though, at least since the idea of ‘the artist’ came about, been some tacit recognition that artists are allowed to behave slightly differently from everybody else, and that truly great artists can be forgiven anything short of (though occasionally including) murder.

One obvious contemporary recipient of the genius exemption is Roman Polanski, who has been allowed to continue his career on the run from American justice. There is some sympathy for his past history (Holocaust survivor, murdered wife), but mainly he continues because he is reckoned in the film industry to be a director of genius. In almost no other area of life would somebody be able to survive accusations of child-rape. An accountant would not. Nor a solicitor, politician or small-business owner. But if the person is thought to have crossed a certain threshold of artistic greatness, almost anything is allowed.

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Cultural history is littered with people who have got off the most serious charges imaginable solely because of their greatness. Richard Wagner survives the anti-Semitism because it is impossible to erase him from musical history and because if you have written Tristan and The Ring people will err towards leniency. Ezra Pound wavers, his poetic reputation going down again in recent years, but if he hadn’t often had the air of genius about him, he would not have survived his own fascist political affiliations. Likewise Celine (Louis-Ferdinand, not Dion) whose fascism can be overlooked, if not forgiven, because of Journey to the end of the Night.

If there is a reason why the exemption is so little discussed, it is because it suggests that even the most non-negotiable taboos are more contingent than we would like to admit.  But the whole thing is contingent on unquantifiable factors. For example, there is ongoing indecision about what behaviour ranks where in the lists of iniquity and who exactly counts as a genius. People drift in and out of immunity based on very unclear criteria.

For decades, Woody Allen was immune to almost any and all accusations against him because of Annie Hall. He was even forgiven for every film since. But at present his own genius opt-out appears to be up for reconsideration because of fresh claims about long-ago aspects of his private life. It is a familiar problem. At various times in recent decades, Oscar Wilde’s reputation has again teetered on a ledge for similar reasons. Today, when anybody mentions the rent boys and their age, defenders of Wilde understandably stress their counter-arguments. In truth, it has simply become recognised that we cannot do without the greatest comedies in the English language. So small evasions are permitted.

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But it is a messy moral business. Until John Bridcut settled the matter a decade ago, Benjamin Britten seemed always to be at risk of a Michael Jackson-like fall. In fact, his own relationships with children turn out never to have crossed over any physical line. But there was definitely a sense of near-terror around the subject for many years. Britten could not be written out of musical history. Like Wagner, we could not do without his music. And like Wagner the accusation against him was not completely divorced from the inspiration behind some of his music, but was actually embedded within great chunks of it.

If Britten had been proved to have abused a child both The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice would have become unperformable. The innocent verdict means we do not have to live with the cognitive dissonance which would come from not doing without his work and not condoning the worst taboos.

Eric Gill turned out to be more easily disposable when his vices (paedophilia, incest, bestiality) came to light. But although his work is still in the Tate and other places, there was definitely a sense that we could ditch Gill if we had to. But these things work in mysterious ways. In popular culture, Michael Jackson inhabits the position of a great artist rather than a disposable one. And that is why the announcement by BBC Radio 2, among others, that they will no longer be playing his music is such a watershed moment.

I suspect that the ban will not last. It will stay for a time before certain early tracks creep back. When a Michael Jackson track comes on at a party, it may for a while be the subject of dark jokes and a bit of comment. But that will recede and people will go on dancing, parking the behaviour of the artist at the back of their mind.

Just one more example of the dissonance which people of talent have always provoked, and the moral exemptions we uncomfortably permit them in gratitude.