Does the value of an artist’s work change with the values of society? By that I mean, is a piece of brilliant writing/composing become less brilliant if the artist is obnoxious, or lawless, or perhaps a pedophile?
What about we change the nature of the human — instead of asking about artists, what about politicians, or doctors, or garbage collectors? How far do we go in re-evaluating a person’s role in society based upon values that are popular today but were not popular 5, 10, 20, 50 years previously?
The idea of revisionist history has come up before but in the past few weeks I’ve seen the idea of revisionist judgment applied to Michael Jackson and Joseph Biden — among others — and I wonder where we think we can go with the idea of judging folks’ actions in the past by the standards that have become popular in contemporary society.
Frankly, I doubt that the world will suddenly stop playing all Michael Jackson music because stories about his proclivities are freely floating around the cosmos. I suspect that generations to come will continue to “oohhh” and “aaahhhh” over the myriad tunes that teens have loved for 20 or more years. But I also suspect that Joe Biden will find a much more difficult time dealing with the question of whether or not he treated Anita Hill fairly during the Clarence Thomas hearings.
We are schizophrenic in our application of moral judgment in this society. It’s funny that we do so, because in many ways as a society we have abandoned values and judgment. Instead of agreeing that there are standards or values that we all should apply, situation ethics has become the standard. No longer is any lifestyle right or wrong — not heterosexuality, nor homosexuality, or even pansexuality. But, if a rich, old, white guy offended someone 20 years ago by being just like everyone else was 20 years ago it’s ok to cite that as a disqualification for political office. It’s kind of mind boggling to think of the applications that such behavioral standards could have in the future.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making excuses for Michael Jackson, nor for Joe Biden, nor for any of the other artists, scientist, explorers, and saints of the past who — revisionist historians have, or are about to, criticize for their life choices. Personally, I happen to think it takes a bit of genius to create. And if that genius comes at the cost of otherwise normal behavior, well I suspect that may be the price the world pays for genius. Someone who is abnormal in their ability to create may just be abnormal in other aspects of their life.
Whether “abnormal” is something to be judged is the question. It seems to me that “normalcy” is, for each of us, the sort of things we grew up with — what was around us all the time, what was accepted and not sanctioned, that was what we understood as the way to “be.” If our parents argued, we think that’s normal. If our siblings bullied us, we think that is normal. If we had a difficult time coming to terms with our sexuality then it’s not surprising if we project that difficulty onto others as well. Normal is a very slippery thing.
And “right” and “wrong” are equally squishy and difficult to nail down. I grew up in a time when women didn’t belong in certain business positions; that wasn’t “right” and not only was that the way everyone behaved, those who challenged that behavior were punished in a variety of ways. Coercion isn’t a good way to effect standards in a society but it’s been the de facto way for millennia. Coercion results in vast swings — rather like hemlines in fashion. I don’t think that the use of coercion it’s going to change however. In fact, judging people for their historic actions has been a pretty successful way of effecting radical social change. And so we have gone from one extreme to another. And will continue to do so.
The real reason for this post is that disqualifying people for their past actions is the very reason we have a Trump in the White House. If you keep your history hidden there isn’t much to judge. But if you are out there in the public eye working for change it’s easy to find things to criticize. The Dark Horse has an advantage over the Public Servant. The unknown has an advantage over the known. Change has an advantage over Skill/Experience/Character.
I don’t know where we are going in this country. The fact is there is no “plan”, there is no direction. We are a fractured society that for 30 year at least has been vacillating between opposing ideals and we can’t unite for long enough to pick a national course and stay on it. Our elected rulers have kicked the can of government down the road to the next generation and in that action they have compounded the problems we faced in the same way that unpaid interest deepens our national burden — and our unpaid debt is both real and figurative. We not only owe other nations, we also suffer from broken health care, a broken environment, broken infrastructure, and broken government.
Humans talk a lot about god/s but the fact of history is that human prefer taking control of their lives over letting some diety have a go at it. In our arrogance we swing from one form of government to another, we swing from one cultural or ethical extreme to another, we wage war against those who disagree with us, and we annihilate those weaker than ourselves. We are the most violent species on the planet and all other species ought to be afraid of us because we alone have the power to screw up the eco-system of this blue ball as does no other species.
I don’t know where we think we can go with revisionism, but the reality is that no one is making that choice — we are all making it, by our daily actions and our daily obsessions — there is no one in charge, and sometimes it scares the bejeezus out of me.