SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this week, Ally Henny was startled when a familiar song suddenly blared from her cellphone. Although the tune was one of her favorites, she immediately shut off the music.
The song was “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson.
Like many Americans, Henny, a seminarian and mother of two in Springfield, Missouri, finds herself confronted with a moral dilemma: whether she should continue to enjoy the work of an entertainer she’s loved since childhood in light of renewed allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
It’s a question troubling more people these days, not only because of the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and is now available for HBO customers to stream, but also because of the #MeToo movement that has helped to expose immoral and abusive behavior in the entertainment industry.
The list of those accused of sexual misconduct since April 2017 — in entertainment, politics and business — has grown to 263 people, according to Vox.
In Hollywood the accused include producer Harvey Weinstein, actors Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, "Today" show co-anchor Matt Lauer, comedian Louis C.K., and Pixar co-founder John Lasseter. Comedian Bill Cosby is in prison for sexual assault, and singer R. Kelly, who says he is innocent, was recently indicted on 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
And the wide-sweeping net of wrongdoing sweeps back to the 19th century, with new revelations of novelist Charles Dickens' mistreatment of his wife.
The Jackson case, however, looms large because of the entertainer's decadeslong cultural influence, from his emergence as a child star in the 1960s until his death in 2009 at age 50. And the allegations against him, which include child rape, are so horrific that some people have sworn off his music. Even Oprah Winfrey seems to have joined the “mute Michael Jackson” crowd; her magazine's Instagram account this week said, “It’s time to say goodbye to Michael Jackson — one last time."
For others, it's not so simple. When artists fall from a pedestal, what should we do with their work?
From Adolph Hitler's paintings, one of which is on display at a World War II museum in Massachusetts, to the Michael Jackson catalog of music, if the allegations against the singer are true, it's a decision that every person must make, according to a philosophy professor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
"We are left as individuals with the difficult personal work of weighing the aesthetic and moral values in each case," associate professor Mary Beth Willard wrote in an article co-authored by Matthew Strohl, who teaches philosophy at the University of Montana.
Some factors to consider include whether or not the person was convicted or genuinely repented, the severity of the misconduct, and the quality of the artwork, Willard and other philosophers say. People should also think about how their decision may affect others downstream — such as people who work with the artist or were victims of the behavior.
Allegations of child sexual abuse against Jackson are not new. He was tried and acquitted of child molestation in 2005. The four-hour documentary that aired on HBO March 3 and 4, however, contained shocking and graphic allegations by two men who were close to Jackson when they were children.
The Jackson estate has sued HBO for $100 million, and members of his family say the allegations are false. Those who believe them, however, are taking to social media to encourage people to, in effect, "cancel" Michael Jackson.
David Dennis Jr., a Georgia professor and writer for NewsOne, calls Jackson a "natural world force" and a "source of universal happiness."
"Michael Jackson was ice cream. He was Christmas morning. He was recess. He was a symbol of joy that was brought to us on the eighth day," Dennis wrote on the website Newsone.
But on March 4, he wrote on Twitter, "I've known Michael Jackson as joy my whole life. I wanted to be him. I believe his accusers. I'm not playing his music again for my kids."
"I have perpetuated Michael Jackson’s abuse by playing his music and introducing him to my kids while never quite being sure of his innocence as a child rapist. I have allowed him to be ice cream for my children when he never should have been," Dennis explained.
Likewise, Henny, the Springfield seminarian, said she doesn’t think she can continue to listen to Jackson’s music, even though it’s been a soundtrack to her life, and she has a brother who believes that Jackson is innocent.
“He’s such a cultural icon that we can’t escape him, but we have to put that in context. I don’t know now that I can call myself a fan. And I’m probably not going to intentionally listen to his music,” Henny said.
But she added that she worries about the ethical implications of what amounts to a boycott of an artist’s work, given that other people’s livelihoods are affected.
“If we say we’re not going to watch Kevin Spacey anymore, what about all the other actors and actresses in his productions?” she said.
Considering the merits
Willard, who teaches philosophy at Weber State University, says there might be a "moral imperative" to shun art that is created by "morally reprehensible artists." But in doing so, we might be cultivating "an aesthetic vice" by closing our eyes to great works of art that enhance our lives and the lives of others.
"Aesthetic considerations aren't negligible. Aesthetic value makes an important contribution to a well-lived human life, and great artworks aren't fungible," Willard and Strohl wrote last year on the philosophy website Daily Nous.
In the case of Hitler's paintings, a lack of artistic merit has made the question of what to do with them less difficult. The paintings carry enough historical value to have kept them out of thrift stores, but "if you walk down the Seine and see 100 artists, 80 will be better than this," Heinz-Joachim Maeder, a spokesperson for an auction house in Berlin, Germany, recently told a Reuters reporter.
The question gets tougher when the work has value, said Andrew Khoury, who teaches philosophy at Arizona State University and wrote recently for The Conversation about the shelf life of moral transgressions.
Khoury believes that moral responsibility for past misdeeds can change over time if the person's character changes, a viewpoint compatible with the Christian doctrine of repentance and forgiveness.
And when the wrongdoer is dead — as in the case of Jackson or Dickens, recently exposed as unfaithful and cruel to his wife and mother of his 10 children — the work still has value if it does not express the values (or lack thereof) expressed in the wrongdoing.
That is, if "A Christmas Carol" had celebrated an individual's right to institutionalize his wife so he can carry on an affair, we might be ethically bound to shun it. But morally neutral works are trickier to manuever, Khoury said.
In really extreme cases of profound wrongdoing — say, genocide — the decision might be easy, “but the real world might be pretty gray,” Khoury said.
“If the piece of work is (morally) neutral, I’m open to the idea that there would be some reason to distance ourselves from it, but that would have to be weighed against the reasons not to do that,” Khoury said.
“With Jackson, he was a fantastic musician. And ‘The Cosby Show’ is another example. It provided a lot of good to the public. Those reasons (that a work was good) don’t cease to exist just because the person has committed a wrongdoing.
“My general advice is, the world is complex. Let’s be careful not to oversimplify things.”
For Dennis, the writer in Georgia who says we shouldn't give a celebrity power over our morals, R. Kelly is not in the gray zone because his songs express the same values as the behavior of which he is accused.
"There is no separating R. Kelly’s music from his crimes because he himself interjected his crimes into his music. The DNA of rape and anti-black woman violence is splattered across every lyric about sex he’s ever uttered," Dennis wrote.
'Honoring the immoral'
The problem of art produced by morally dubious people is as old as art itself; there are ancient cave drawings that depict bestiality and torture. People may instinctively want to turn away from the work of people whose behavior is repulsive, and attention is “a scarce and valuable resource” that they may decide be better spent elsewhere, Willard and Strohl wrote.
But close examination of the lives of many famous artists, from writer Leo Tolstoy (said to be cruel to his wife) to singer Jerry Lee Lewis (married his 13-year-old cousin) to, more recently, novelist Dan Mallory, accused of serial lying in The New Yorker, could leave the universal body of art greatly diminished.
“Many great artists are awful human beings,” Willard and Strohl wrote.
In their paper "When Artists Fall: Admiring and Honoring the Immoral," Alfred Archer of Tilburg University and Benjamin Matheson of Stockholm University offer three reasons to cease admiration for artists who behave badly: continuing to honor the person serves to condone the behavior, it generates undue credibility and it essentially silences the victims of the behavior.
The authors note, however, that there is no "one size fits all" resolution to the problem and each case must be judged by its merits and the context.
In addition to the reasoned decisions we make, there may also be a nudging of conscience involved, an inner revulsion not unlike a person spitting out a mouthful of sour milk.
Willard, for example, said she grew up listening to Bill Cosby's comedy and read his books, but after revelations of his crimes, "That was that. I couldn't engage with his work anymore."
In the case of Jackson, it's not as clear a case, she says, because many of the allegations are old and have been contested, not only by the family, but by Jackson himself.
"There's not a definitive answer about what happened, and there likely won't be. Because of that, it's harder to know how to let this influence your response to his music."
The best way to decide is to figure out the benefit of your action, Willard said. For example, if you decide to reject Jackson's music as a means of bringing attention to the problem of child abuse, that could be a reason to do so and tell others about it.
"But, if you're all right listening to Michael Jackson and (the music) doesn't bother you, then OK. If it does bother you, then don't listen to him. There are a lot of other artists out there that you could be giving your attention and money."