Thursday, August 31, 2006

Freddie Mercury: The Artist

At what point do we separate the artist from his/her personal life? There are a lot of artists out there -- both now and in the past -- whose art, whether it be music, or film, or literature, or dance or any number of creative efforts, we enjoy and partake of but whose personal lives we as individuals or as a society might not actually agree with or approve of.

Today, a 60th birthday special party event meant to honor Freddie Mercury (nee Farrokh Bulsara) in his birthplace of Zanzibar (he was born to Iranian parents) was cancelled because members of the Zanzibari Association for Islamic Mobilization and Propagation (UAMSHO) were opposed to both Mercury's personal life (he was gay and he died of AIDS in 1991) and to the personal lives of his fans: "We were ready to join forces against the party because we had information that a number of gays from abroad had come to take part," said Sheikh Azzan Hamdani of UAMSHO.

So let's take the case of Freddie Mercury (for whom a Hollywood or Brit-wood biopic is long overdue, I would venture to say) -- his music is outstanding -- there isn't a radio-listening, mp3-downloading, sport-watching soul out there who isn't familiar with his classic 'We are the Champions' -- his artistry on stage was unique and entertaining, his talent was widely respected and adored. But there are those who object and objected to his life as a homosexual and that brings up the question at hand: where do we draw the line against an artist because of his personal life?

I think it's actually a pretty simple answer -- an answer we can use not just for the artists whose art we enjoy but for all of our assessments of human relationships, from friendships all the way up to our partners: let's judge people by how humane they are. Humane meaning compassionate, empathetic, just, honest, considerate.

If Freddie Mercury chose to act upon his homosexual inclinations by engaging in mutually consensual homosexual behavior then who am I to tell him that he's bad? On the other hand, if Freddie Mercury was known or proven to have forced himself on someone or somehow violated another person -- or if he'd stolen from people, or lied to gain advantage or somehow, in some way hurt other people for his own interests or benefit then, and only then would I question my endorsement of his art.

But it's not easy to do a background check on the singer behind every song that appeals to my ears, the painter behind every canvas that satisfies my eyes, the dancer behind every show that captivates my attention. And it's not necessary: those people, artists or not, whose lives abound with inhumanity will be remembered for their injustices through the aid of history -- their wrongs will reach our ears and it is then that we must choose whether we mind or not.

Ray Charles was a fascinating talent who revolutionized jazz piano and voice but he was a cruel man who walked out on his first wife when she was heavily pregnant and who fathered at least 20 children from 12 women. He was also addicted to heroin for over 20 years but I could care less. The fact that he was cruel to people who loved him, to people who depended on him, is something that I can never overlook when I hear his music or watch his recorded performances. Ray Charles was a bad man in my book and that taints his art for me. He sings the blues and I think of his fatherless children. He bangs his piano keys in delight and I wonder if he thought twice about abandoning the young woman carrying his child. The point is, the artist is his art and the value of both is intertwined.

Some say the art and the artist are two separate things -- entitites that should be taken in their own right. Then maybe we shouldn't care that Bill Clinton bombed Somalia and Iraq and Afghanistan because he played a snazzy jazz saxophone. Or maybe we shouldn't care that Pablo Picasso was a misogynist who committed domestic abuse because his paintings are astounding. Or maybe we shouldn't care that Jerry Lee Lewis or Charlie Chaplin committed statutory rape against minors because they were great performers.

Maybe we shouldn't but maybe we should -- if art is pure then the artist, it seems, should be pure too and we should value the essence of both. That doesn't mean we don't listen to Bill Clinton play the sax or we don't watch a Chaplin movie -- it just means that we don't take to idolizing an artist or extolling an artist based solely on his or her work and disregarding the person behind the achievement.

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