Niels van Poecke is university lecturer Art Theory and Sociology of Arts and Culture at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. He specialises in art philosophy, sociology of pop music, culture and social inequality, and the role of authenticity in Western culture.
After it became known that R. Kelly — who had previously been accused of sexual abuse — was suspected of involuntary imprisonment, brainwashing and sexual abuse of women, social media called for a complete boycott of his work. Since the revelations about Harvey Weinstein became public and the birth of MeToo, countless musicians, filmmakers and comedians have been publicly accused. What’s going on?
“We live in a society that demands transparency about everything: from the way Facebook uses our privacy to how politicians make their decisions. This particular topic concerns gender inequality; it’s about the abuse of power by men. Something seems to be shifting in that regard. We’re witnessing a post-feminist wave. For a long time, criticisms on the unjust relations between men and women were mainly theoretical. Now there’s this widespread consensus on the need to enforce change. The criticisms must lead to a next step. Heads will have to roll.”
The sentiment: they’re not getting away with it anymore.
“That doesn’t just apply to the arts, of course. Abuse of power by men, but by women too, is being challenged everywhere. This applies to the private sector, as well as to all of us here at the university.”
It’s striking that it’s mainly artists who bore the brunt of the accusations in recent years — as if they were allowed free rein for too long. Is that true?
“You might say that artists have enjoyed an exceptional position in our society for a very long time. This has something to do with our understanding of authenticity, which has its roots in historical romanticism. The concept of the artist — and especially the concept of the genius artist — stems from that period.
“During the romantic era the notion arose that individuals are not just governed by external morals, rules that are enforced by church or state, but that there is something as a morality in ourselves that might help us determine what is good and what is evil; beautiful and ugly. That authenticity can guide our lives. We assume that artists are unrivalled in their capacity to let that source in themselves, their inner feeling, emotions and imagination, run wild. As such, we looked to them to explore and represent new worlds. They were viewed as visionaries, people who allowed us to practise thinking about different realities. You could say that this implied that they were held to different standards than other people.
“In art everything is possible and allowed, even things that are not possible or allowed in everyday life. The German writer and philosopher Friedrich von Schiller describes this as ‘play’. Art allows people to play with instinctual processes, just like in a football match: animalistic behaviour — such as competitiveness, the need to attack and dominate another — are allowed, even sublimated, within the rule of the game. The same process applies to the arts. It’s close to Aristotle’s definition of catharsis: the way in which you can convert certain instinctual matters — violence, sexuality, whatever perversion you might have — into something artistic. This is something we’ve been doing since Greek tragedies at least. Those are all about incest, killing your loved ones or even your children.”
Isn’t it hypocritical for us to want to strongly condemn the people who help us deal with our forbidden instincts — by channelling and sublimating them into art — when it turns out that some of those forbidden instincts manifest themselves in their daily lives?
“I don’t think so. There are limits to what is allowed and what you can do within a democratic state under the rule of law. And everyone should adhere to those limits, even artists. What makes an artist great is their ability to turn forbidden instincts into something artistic. I do think it’s hypocritical when people too quickly — without doing any research beforehand — characterise artists as perverts. In that context, I was highly interested to see the video that Kevin Spacey posted online last Christmas. Obviously, I am not privy to all the facts of his particular situation; the trial against him is still ongoing, I want to make that clear. It might be the case that he screwed up and needs to be sentenced for that. I do feel it’s justified, however, for him to say that we should wait and see which facts come to light before firing people from shows and pillorying them.”
When was the last time you listened to R. Kelly?
“That must’ve been in secondary school, I think: I Believe I Can Fly.”
Would you still listen to his music now?
“No. But that has nothing to do with the accusations surrounding him. I just think it’s bad music.”
Comedian and publicist Micha Wertheim wrote that the transgressions of Louis C.K. wouldn’t make him boycott that performer’s oeuvre. Do you understand that decision?
“Yes. If I think a musician is truly great, I tend to steer clear of their personal life, as finding out more about them might get in the way of my enjoying their music. I got a chance to meet Bonnie Prince Billy for my dissertation research; he truly is one of the greats of American folk music. After his concert in WORM, we were having a beer together. In that moment I realised: I shouldn’t be doing this. What if the interview turns out to be really uncomfortable or he turns out to be jerk? That might make me appreciate his music less.”
Why would that have to be the case? Can’t you just separate the artist from their work?
“This is all about how we look at authenticity today. The romantic definition of authenticity — which revolves around not adhering to societal norms — is increasingly giving way to ‘sincerity’. In the now classic book from the 70s, Sincerity and Authenticity, the American culture scholar Lionel Trilling describes sincerity as the coincidence of your personal behaviour with what society expects of you. These days, a certain type of audience prefers that sincerity in artists to the transgressive — authentic — behaviour of before.”
Is it a bad thing that so many creators are being judged publicly?
“It’s a good thing that this type of abuse of power is brought to light and that people are punished for sexually transgressive behaviour. I also think it’s valuable that we’re having a debate about the role of the artist. It’s a shame that the arts in general are being cast in an unfavourable light by this type of excess. I believe that there is a lot of strength to be drawn from the imaginations of artists and the experiments they conduct with regards to the excesses within our society. Artists create a kind of space that is necessary for a healthy democracy, I think.”
The arts will survive, right?
“Of course. These are excesses. It’s similar to the situation in the private sector and in schools: abuse of power occurs, but most managers and teachers don’t abuse their employees or pupils.”