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The Michael Richards Paradox… or how to disentangle the art from the artist? November 26, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Music.

Okay, this is becoming a habit in terms of opening sentences, but poor old Michael Richards. Kramer as he is known to hundreds of thousands of Seinfeld fans has covered himself in something less than glory over the past week after letting loose during a stand-up routine at some black members of a Comedy Club audience with a stream of racial epithets.

Neither clever nor charming. Indeed quite the opposite.

But it raises interesting questions about the way in which we can (or can we?) detach the artist from the art. I’m not about to destroy my Season 1/2 and 3 DVDs of Seinfeld because he’s done this. I doubt I would, short of the entire cast making a similar foray into the world of racial (im)politics. And that tells me something about myself which has – if not troubled at least somewhat exercised me for a while now.

At what point do I stop watching television if an actor has made offensive comments? At what point do I stop listening to music if the musician or singer is a racist? At what point do I tear an image down if the artist has similar beliefs, or close the book if the writer holds utterly contrary viewpoints to mine? I’m slightly eliding a spectrum of issues there, with reference to viewpoints as distinct from say overt racism, but even so the question remains.

A couple of examples. Ian Curtis of Joy Divsion, was in his personal life, given with other members of JD to making racist jokes and jibes, at least so the biography written by his wife Deborah tells us. Unpleasant. And the ‘playing’ with Nazi iconography is equally so.

Various members of MC5, the Stooges and Led Zeppelin appear to have had an almost neanderthal approach to women. Although it’s fairly probable that any group of people given the adulation they were would be prone to excess. Still, that’s merely a none-too-clever way of excusing things.

And what about those who hold views that some may merely disagree with. The Chameleons are very well-regarded round these parts, but anyone considered their spin-off band ‘The Sun and the Moon’ and the lyrics of the song ‘The Death of Imagination’?

There’s no question of force
There’s no question of judgement
Just a momentary feeling of pain
And the problem has gone
A hint of remorse
In a matter of conscience
It’s a race
And the race never ends
From the moment you’re born
If you make it that far

The least of all life

Or on what appears to be a similar topic, ‘Bodies’ by the Sex Pistols, an excoriating anti-abortion, anti-everything song fuelled by Lydon’s howl of rage…

Body I’m not an animal
An animal
Im not an animal…
Im not an abortion…

In neither case am I making any value judgement about songs or topic, both are powerful with more thoughtful than they scan on first view lyrics, other than to point out that tastes can run counter to worldviews. The Manic Street Preachers perhaps exemplified this on their visit to Cuba some years back where they were patently aware of, and perhaps even a little embarressed by, the contradictions of their visit and their revolutionary chic.

The late lamented Easterhouse – straight from Glasgow as I recall, had an album entitled Contenders released in the late 1980s. Filled with gems such as ‘Lenin in Zurich’ (I kid you not) and ‘Get Back to Russia’, which had the immortal, but arguable line: ‘At least the Russian working man knows exactly where he stands’ (true, but missing the point when you’re actually extolling the virtues of the Soviet state). ‘Inspiration’ included a tribute to the inspirational powers of Bobby Sands and the other hunger strikers. Grandly offensive to many. Great music to the few who bought it…

Then there is Rush…Ah, a thesis awaits these merry pranksters. Acolytes of Ayn Rand and Tolkien, at least in their early years and one of their finest moments a rustic little song The Trees which most of the world assumes is a paean to equality, but is in fact anything but…

There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas

Actually, I have to be honest, I quite like some Rush tracks, despite my better judgement, particularly their last but one album. You see? You see? That’s how it works. Rush may indeed plough a furrow of Objectivism (apparently best exemplified by Neil Pearts book on his travels in Africa), but still there’s something there that makes me listen and enjoy – at least up to a point… The Pistols remain a great band, as do the Chameleons, as does Joy Division.

Simon Schama’s Power of Art on Friday Night on BBC had an hour long appraisal of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh, played appropriately enough by Mr. Intensity Andy Serkis with a fetching ochre beard was in his earlier years a fervent preacher of the Protestant faith who was forced from that job due to being ‘overly zealous’. I actually like many of his paintings, but I’m not sure I’d have much liked him had I met him.

And there are real limits. Emil Nolde, a German painter who was in a sense one of those who continued the Expressionism that Van Gogh exemplified. Unfortunately he was a strong supporter and member of the Nazi Party from the 1920s onwards. Tough for Nolde that Hitler loathed all forms of modernism in the arts and was instrumental in forcing Nolde’s works from public view. Even that didn’t quite serve to rescue his reputation in later years. He’s still regarded as a significant contributor to the development of Expressionism, but…

The state of Israel has wrestled with the issue of Richard Wagner, to the point where his operas have not been played under official auspices. Wonderful composer, but clearly anti-Semitic in his personal writings and attitudes. Does the anti-Semitism permeate the music? My answer would probably be no, although the subject matter of the compositions appears – at the least – questionable. But I can understand the sensitivity that the works have raised. So does it come down to a situation where ‘we mean it maaaaan!’ is the divider between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Therefore the Ramones, the Pistols, Joy Division, because they play with such ideas but don’t really intrinsically believe them are acceptable, whereas Nolde and Wagner are not because they do believe them. And the relationships perhaps have to be underpinned by the closeness to power or the serious exercise of prejudice and bigotry. Nolde was part of the regime. Siouxsie Sioux infamously singing ‘Too many Jews for my liking” in 1978 wasn’t. Still, that doesn’t necessarily hold true either. The extreme right has had it’s cohort of bands. Their influence might be limited, but…

To some degree we live in a world where comedy, in particular, has shifted towards almost ‘playing’ with these concepts of acceptable and unacceptable. Larry David has made a career out of swerving towards this territory in both Seinfeld and his own show. But that’s the difference, of course, one is a show, the other is – as Michael Richards has no doubt learned all too well – reality. A rather less forgiving reality than the one depicted in the Office, Little Britain or indeed Larry David.

Perhaps that’s as it should be.


1. Lorenzo - November 27, 2006

“I can’t listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland” – Woody Allen


2. Mbari Hogun - November 28, 2006

Ian Curtis supposedly made his wife vote Conservative, so that her vote wouldn’t cancel his out.


3. TK - September 5, 2009

So what if Ian Curtis was a racist? Music world tries to be so liberal and leftist that it makes me puke. ”If you are a mucisian you must be tolerant and leftist…”. WTF??? It’s anyone’s right to think about things how he/she likes! Don’t be hypocrit!

”It’s a race
And the race never ends
From the moment you’re born
If you make it that far”

And how you find that song of The Chameleons racial? Maby it’s just a race, competition itself. Or like the Sex Pistols song you regard it as anti-abortion… How you can say so? What proof you have of these things? I guess you see racism and right-wing everywhere. Maby you have only a fixation with your stupid leftist views.


4. WorldbyStorm - September 5, 2009

Or… maybe I do what I call reading and knowing a bit about the bands from biographies, articles etc, which is something you could do with the original post. There’s no dispute that Bodies by the Pistols is about abortion. The clue, and I know this will be a surprise… is in what I also like to call the lyrics:

She was a girl from Birmingham
She just had an abortion
She was case of insanity
Her name was Pauline, she lived in a tree

She was a no one who killed her baby
She sent her letters from the country
She was an animal
She was a bloody disgrace

Don’t know where you get the idea that the supposed Chameleons song – it isn’t from the Chameleons by the way, it’s from the spin off band the Sun and the Moon, as I noted in the original post – is about race. It seems to me to be about abortion too.

As for Curtis being racist the jury is out on that one, although Deborah Curtis’s book notes that the guys in Joy Division made racist jokes… I can give them a pass just about because of the time it happened in and how young they were. And the small fact that in the 1980s as New Order they went on to embrace black music (and one could also note that Erasmus, Tony Wilsons close aide in Factory happened to be black as well, so one doubts that they were in any real sense racist).

By the way, not one of those songs above are ones that I don’t like either.

But whether being racist is acceptable? No, it isn’t. And there’s nothing hypocritical at all about saying that. But if you want to go down the path of moral relativism be my guest.

And at least my stupid leftist views are in this instance backed up by the facts.


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