The Daily Communiqué – 27 April 2019 – The Problematic Artist

Kate Smith Statue

This commentary is about personal choice, not about policy making, or about judging others who consume entertainment you don’t approve of.

The NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers stopped playing Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” before games, and removed her statue, recently.

Why?  Because an anonymous caller told the Flyers’ front office she had a history of singing racist songs.

Before I dig into the facts behind this contretemps, I want to examine this issue of the problematic creative.  That is, the artist whose works provide joy to fans unaware of their favorite’s more hideous flaws.

Conversations across many tables about this happen regularly for me.  How do we square someone as odious as Orson Scott Card with two of my favorite series, Alvin Maker, and Ender?  Or Richard Wagner‘s operatic Ring Cycle (which was co-opted by the Nazis)?  Kevin SpaceyMarian Zimmer Bradley?

Everyone has a line they draw, how and where that line gets drawn is obviously an deeply personal choice.  It can be heart wrenching.  I was so disappointed, and upset, with Kevin Spacey that I realized I could no longer watch any of his work.  This brilliantly talented actor whose Richard III must have been glorious to see, and who starred in some of my very favorite movies, made it so that I can’t even look at him.

A conversation with my mentor one day centered on this thorny subject.  We have to support creativity, and not censorship.  So where does that leave us?

I’ve circled around this so many times I’ve met myself both coming and going.  There are no hard and fast rules.  And it’s not easy to decide what’s right.

But consider this.  What if we didn’t know about the dark secrets of our favorite artists?  We’d continue to consume their work without having the burden of weighing our morals every time we pick up a book or watch a movie.  My personal library is pretty big and I don’t know a thing about a lot of the authors whose work occupies that space.  I’m willing to bet that if I looked hard enough I could find something nasty about some of them.

I don’t have time or energy for that.  I want to judge the work based on my enjoyment of what’s between the covers.  And believe me, I have no problem bailing on a book if it’s not living up to my expectations.  Life’s too short, time’s limited, I gotta get the best I can out of the entertainment I consume.

We all say and do things we wish we hadn’t.  In our younger days, our judgement probably wasn’t that sharp.  Mine definitely wasn’t and I would hate to be judged on a bad decision I made decades ago that no longer fits who I am.  This is not to excuse the serial bad behavior of people.  Someone having a really bad day saying something they immediately regret and never say again is one thing.  A person who does that on a regular basis and show no understand or regret is a completely different topic.

Kate Smith’s “racist” history amounts to two songs she sang in her 20s when just starting her career.  She certainly wasn’t a racist, especially by the time she sang “God Bless America” live at a Flyers playoff game in 1974.

An opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune questions the “moral clarity” in making the choice to boycott Smith.  As far as I can tell, this isn’t about moral clarity, it’s about the politics of the day.

Where do people find the energy to stir up such trouble?  Wouldn’t fighting actual racism be a better use of time and energy?  A woman who sang two songs decades ago, and died in 1986, hardly seems worth all that tsuris.  I can barely look after myself most days, so I won’t be spending that much more energy on it.

Enjoy what you enjoy, don’t feel guilty for enjoying it and draw your lines in the most comfortable places for you.  And certainly, don’t look to anyone else for guidance.  Unless you’re asking for book recommendations …



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