Can the Art be Separated from the Artist?

How to explain bad behavior to students

How to explain bad behavior to students

by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

These are difficult times for teachers. With MCAS looming, budgets due (and most likely cut from last year), and antsy students counting the hours to year-end, teachers have a small mountain of things on their plate. Add the storm of controversies in pop culture (which students pay more attention to than Algebra) and the classroom can be a complex and complicated storm center. Students who grew up listening to R. Kelly are going to have many questions even before getting to the recent revelations about Michael Jackson. And now English teachers have to confront the news that Charles Dickens tried to have his wife committed to an insane asylum so he could be with another woman. (Divorce was apparently too much trouble.) Throw in John Wayne’s recently rediscovered racist rants and Joe Biden’s hair fetish and your head spins like a scene from The Exorcist.

How we teachers process all this information is important, as it affects how our students will process it. It would be easy to dismiss some of these controversies as time period issues, much as history teachers explain Thomas Jefferson’s slave holdings. But that is no solution. The troubling behavior of pop icons is disturbing to young people. They may turn to adults for answers. We’d better have some handy.

Writers, statesmen, philosophers and artists have always been known to behave abnormally. Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear; Socrates committed suicide after being found guilty of “not recognizing the gods recognized by the state”; William Shakespeare and George Washington may have had affairs while away from home; John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton may have had them while at home in the White House; Edgar Allen Poe married his 12 year-old cousin, and Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13 year-old cousin. And yet, none of these “character flaws” disqualify the works and contributions of the characters themselves. No one changes the oldies station when Great Balls of Fire comes on, nor is anyone ripping up the Declaration of Independence because Jefferson owned slaves.

Is it simply the passage of time that permits us to see the works and not the person? Was it easier in the days before Twitter? (Wasn’t everything easier without Twitter!) Why do we teach the “eccentricities” of Poe and not condemn his alcoholism and opium addiction and what today would be considered child endangerment? (Never mind that she was his cousin.)

The barrage of recent eruptions called up a vivid memory from my junior year of high school. I was taking a modified philosophy class in which we had spent much of the year on the writings and teachings of Lawrence Kohlberg, a mid-century psychiatrist/philosopher who developed a six-stage theory of moral development based on Jean Piaget.

In Kohlberg’s third stage, an adolescent, and possibly an adult, realizes what societal norms are and wishes to act within those norms so as not to stand out negatively within the community. By stage six, a person’s acts are motivated not by fear of punishment, but by the realization of what is right and the desire to act accordingly. (OK, not everyone makes it to stage 6.) What makes Kohlberg’s theory stand out is that it takes into account different cultures and the changing of societal norms. As society changes, so does the development of individual morals. In other words, the development of morality is not static; it changes in the same way society changes over time.

Why is this important? Partly because it proposes that society can change, norms can change, and people can develop the sense of morality at different rates. But there is another, more important, reason that Kohlberg’s teachings came to mind.

In the middle of our term, Kohlberg committed suicide. When the news hit the papers (this was pre-Twitter), my classmates and I, ever searching for a chink in the armor of moral development, pounced on our hapless teacher. How, we demanded, could we credit the theories of a psychologist who was so irrational as to take his own life?

The teacher’s response was measured and probably meant as much for himself as for us. Just because a person had a side that was unbalanced or even immoral, he said, it did not necessarily discredit achievements that society had deemed worthy and valuable. He cited historical figures like Socrates and van Gogh whose actions were questionable but whose works are still revered. If we can separate the work from the behavior in regard to historical figures, he argued, we should make the same distinction for modern thinkers, artists or philosophers who may have exhibited questionable or even immoral behavior. Separate the work from the person, he urged.

This is what we have been doing with Poe in English classrooms for years. We dismiss his behaviors as the quirks or aberrations of genius rather than the crimes of an opium-addicted child molester who married his 12- year-old cousin when he was 27. We excuse his behavior because the writings he created are too worthy of study to dismiss. We will undoubtedly do the same with Dickens despite the new revelations of his disturbing behavior.

Still, for students and many adults, this separation of person from work is extremely difficult. The long lens of history creates separation from the individual and a sort of statute of limitations: times were different; they didn’t know any better. This statute may apply to Jefferson, Poe or even Wayne, but it can’t be invoked for Michael Jackson or R. Kelly. Yet in the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, one of Jackson’s victims states that Michael was a gifted and wonderfully creative performer, and he would never want to take anything away from that, even though he was victimized by behavior that left him shaken and scarred.

Time will be the judge for these artists. For now, at least for me, it is possible to separate the works from the troubling actions. It is legitimate to enjoy the music now if you enjoyed it before you knew these disturbing facts. Just as with musicians, writers, philosophers and artists of earlier times who are still admired and taught today, the works of our current fallen idols exist apart from the flawed persons who made them. Radio stations may boycott Kelly or Jackson, or Jerry Lee, but they all remain on my playlist.

And will I forsake Poe because of his offenses against decency? In a word, “Nevermore.”

Related posts: Words and Meanings, The teachers’ job and Language and Liability in a Sensitive Time. Words Matter! Definitions & Intent Matter!

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