In most forms of journalism and critique, there’s an aspiration toward objectivity. Certainly, some forms call on it more than others, but in the world that I come from—music criticism and, in a larger context, culture journalism—the opinions of the writer are inextricably linked to the subject they're courting. Art and pop culture both rely on human interpretation. Various substitutes have been foretold as the death knell of culture journalism, be it article-writing software or aggregators like Metacritic, but our continued existence proves that there is something invariably human to the process. So why do critics use objectivity to justify abuse?
It's been well documented that great artists can be terrible people. The New York Times ran the aptly titled "Good Art, Bad People" on the subject. What often isn't brought up is how we as listeners, viewers, journalists and consumers are complicit in enabling the abuse. That's not to say you're a bad person for listening to Wagner—even if you're aware of his rampant anti-Semitism—but it's less simple than a contradiction between the cleanly defined morality of the artist and the merit of their artistry. The idea that one's art is always a divided and separate entity from the artist is a misleading one. Part of every artistic analysis is questioning not only whether something works, but also why.
Art doesn't exist in a vacuum outside of context, whether it's a simple social understanding or deeply ingrained dogma. Genre, geography, time, culture, nationality and hundreds more defining features can account for the "why," but when the spotlight is shone on the artist themselves, the most central context, and one often worthy of biographical exploration just as much as their work, there is a knee-jerk critical repudiation of any direct correlation between art and artist.
The argument is often the same: how can art so universally beloved lose its merit based on the actions of the artist? Many times, it doesn't—I can't think of anyone who thoroughly researches the moral background of every artist they encounter before deciding to enjoy their work—but that doesn't mean that it's never the case. There's one story that serves as an almost perfect example of how the artist and the art can be inseparable and the startling lack of dissent among critics in spite of our awareness of the circumstances surrounding it: Enabler's “Fail to Feel Safe.”
Enabler was an up-and-coming metal band. They had received generally positive critical acclaim for their specific brand of misanthropy, particularly the hate-fueled lyrics from their hyped upcoming release, “Fail to Feel Safe.” The name would take on a tragically relevant new meaning when it was found that main songwriter and lyricist Jeff Lohrber had abused Amanda Daniels, the band's bassist, sexually, emotionally, financially and eventually very publically defamed her. The initial public reaction was a sadly conventional one—persecutory questioning and dismissal. Lohrber even made a snarky defense statement that also took shots at Daniels' musicianship. Finally, after the band's drummer (who just so happened to be male) backed up Daniels' assertions, people started to take things seriously.
Daniels put the lyricism in a new light. The hate that was at one point considered to be nondescript was now very specific, succinctly summarized by the passage: “Forget the past, though we can't forgive, there's a hell for me and I'm living in it.” The album's meaning shifted to its true inspiration: the difficulty of "dealing with" having raped and abused someone. The tone of hostility wasn't out of existential angst—it was the very real moaning of an abuser. Surely, an album so self-absorbed and repugnant would need to be addressed contextually.
And yet, the positive reviews came funneling in. Some were refusing to “play… the moral crusader game” so they could "be professional about this" (thanks, Metal Wani). Others said that “unless it directly impacts or threatens your personal… health, it's probably not really your business” (great job, Pure Grain Audio). Of the few negative reviews out there that I didn't personally have a hand in, each chose the predictably safe route of forming the crux of their argument against the musical content, tagging on the abuse rather than having an actual conversation about it. All of the big-name publications stayed out entirely, despite the fact that some of these publications, namely Pitchfork, a publication that claims to champion social justice causes, had covered their previous work. It's a smart move in a difficult situation, and one perhaps even borne out of respect for the incident, but no less conveniently safe.
Though there is rarely such a specific, morally unambiguous example to point to, this is hardly an isolated incident. In this year alone, we've seen multiple other instances of critical success amidst scandal. Most notably, “Straight Outta Compton,” despite its infamous colorist and misogynistic casting call and blatant omissions of intimate partner violence that Dr. Dre committed against Dee Barnes and others at the time—which he himself admits occurred—did not receive a single negative review by those listed under Metacritic. Worse, the irony of this juxtaposition with a message of racial discontent was lost on many, if not all of those who reviewed the film. That's not to say that either “Straight Outta Compton,” “Fail to Feel Safe,” or any other piece of ethically questionable artistic expression can't be seen as worthwhile, but the relative (or in Enabler's case, complete) silence on these difficult issues speaks a lot louder than anything I can write here.
This cumulative critical reaction sends a simple message: we as critics are either too incompetent or too afraid to talk about difficult subjects. The argument that it's “not our business” is antithetical to everything journalism stands for. Daniels herself started the conversation, hoping that people would hear. Are we not the ones who are supposed to continue it? If we're not, then we're nothing more than a hype machine or a consumer guide, so why don't we brand ourselves that way? It's disingenuous to call ourselves journalists if all we do is build buzz—that makes us PR. In the actual circumstances of artistic production, there is clearly an element of the creator in the work. Sometimes this is irrelevant, but many times it's not, and ignoring it altogether perpetuates the idea that "art" is nothing more than base, primal enjoyment. We owe the victims, the art and ourselves much more than that.