“Can you separate the art from the artist?” is one of those constantly recurring questions we ask when some artist is reported to have done something heinous. The way we ask it isn’t supposed to be a question about the nature of art but more of a conversation we start with ourselves. Not, “Can you separate,” but “Can you separate.”
Obviously, coming up with your own answer has to take in a lot of factors: how malicious is the artist? How much do we like their art? Am I supporting them if I support their work? Do they benefit from my fandom?Maybe something as simple as being an anti-gay rights activist, like Orson Scott Card, is enough to get you to boycott Ender’s Game. But maybe you can also reason that Bukowski’s misogyny doesn’t affect you because book sales can’t go in a dead man’s pocket.
The question came up again in the recent blow-up of Conor Oberst news. For those that don’t keep up with the goings-on of indie blogs: an xojane contributor wrote an article recounting a particularly vicious rape incident involving an unnamed rock star. Inspired by the contributor’s courage, a commenter in that article explained her own incident — except she named names. The comments can be found here. She briefly opened up a Tumblr to explain some things, but it has since been deleted, leaving only recaps like this and this.
In these cases where the heinous acts can only be described as alleged, where all we have to go on is two people with opposite claims, it’s much more difficult to settle on. You’ll notice all the hand wringing from outlets like Stereogum who had to have meetings to decide whether this was something to report. Fortunately for blogs, Oberst’s publicist putting out a response made the decision for them.
Like many overly emotional people my age, Oberst and his band Bright Eyes played a big role in my life during my formative years. Since then, his presence in my taste has been constant and influential. But as much time as I’ve spent with his albums, and even though I’ve listened to every song he’s put out, it’s foolish for me to assume I know him. It would be foolish of me to assume that I have a handle on his character just because when he sings it sounds like he means it.
As fans, we’ll probably start off by staring at the table trying to figure out how we feel. Our first instinct is to ask ourselves who we believe: the accused or the accuser.
I don't think that's the way to approach it.
In fact, that’s not the decision we have to make. The impossibility of knowing and the lack of information makes it irrelevant; barring some breakthrough confession, we will likely never know either way and this thing will remain unresolved until it fades away. It isn’t honest to decide “he probably did it” or “she probably lied.” But that’s not the same as coming down the middle.
It’s not about the likelihood of the comments truth or the likelihood of Oberst’s crime, it’s about how we treat reports of rape and abuse. In a society here it’s as pervasive and unreported as it is, we simply can’t afford to write off a report as unserious or not worth consideration. The public face of how we treat claims against the powerful matters. Maybe not for this accuser, but for people watching and following along. We don’t have to accept it as the truth — but we do owe it more respect than automatically deciding it’s a lie.
I understand why you might decide an anonymous comment is not worth the compassion. She is, after all, a random person on the internet just like you and me. If we took every internet person’s word as fact, Kel Mitchell would be dead right now, right? But that type of second guessing is easily available for Oberst, too. It’s hard to imagine what someone has to gain from making a throwaway comment – that was not initially anonymous – when the person is sure to be hassled more than they will benefit from such internet notoriety. There are more efficient platforms to stir shit up than several comments deep into an xojane article. And hey, maybe you think Oberst’s third party statement and exploration of legal recourse seems a tad too defensive.
But again, that’s not the point. It doesn’t matter who is likely telling the truth, because we can never know. We’re not supposed to figure it out like we’re detectives. What matters is how we treat these situations and deal with them in public forums.
There’s a line of thought out there that the real victim would be Conor Oberst, that the accusation may haunt his entire career. While being famous certainly makes you a bigger target, and certainly celebrities are more vulnerable to random claims against them, lets also not forget that they have a higher chance of ultimately being fine. Controversy can slide off someone given enough time and the right maneuvers. Just ask Surfer Blood’s John Paul Pitts, who, while currently unable to shed his domestic abuse incident, is still able to make albums and get softball coverage from major outlets. Ask Isaac Brock, or the scores of famous people with a past that has sometimes tinted their careers but for the most part has left them intact (Charlie Sheen, Eric Clapton, Axl Rose, James Brown...).
Consider this: the reason you are inclined not to believe the accuser and side with the accused is because Oberst has the benefit of a relationship with the public. You have over 10 years of music to connect to that puts him on your side. He has easy access to libel lawyers if he so chooses to seek some vague form of justice. He has power and privilege of the benefit of the doubt, automatically assigned to him by most people just because he makes really personal art.
Again, I’m not insinuating that he’s lying or that she’s lying. Just that Oberst has an advantage and a position of privilege – as the gossip-eating public, we don’t need to further tip that scale.
We need not look any further than R. Kelly and his recent career renaissance to see just how far fandom will go to rehabilitate your career. It took Jim DeRogatis years of screaming from mountaintops to get someone to notice that, hey, R. Kelly has a lot of reports of being a rapist and a predator, not just one girl and some vague relationship to Aaliyah. It was a ton of smoke for there to be no fire. And when people did notice, when the gut-wrenching and detailed police documents were signal boosted by the Village Voice, it was like an alarm clock — suddenly people started waking up and had to ask themselves about the art and artist, a question that was easily left in ignorance because we all liked “Ignition (Remix)”.
I’m not out to equate a single claim against Oberst with a well-documented track record of R. Kelly’s predatory behavior. Just that they’re at far lesser risk than someone who dares to report sexual assault against a person in power. We’d be best off, as a society, if it was okay to have the courage to speak up, rather than the current environment where we slam them down with snark, venomous skepticism and personal attacks at the slightest reason to doubt.
Still, deciding this doesn’t really help me predict how I’ll react to the next Conor Oberst album. When the R. Kelly incident blew up for a second time, one of the most poignant responses was from Rembert Brown at Grantland. In it, he grapples with his intense R. Kelly fandom and the reality that he’s far from a good dude. When I wonder if I could swear off Oberst’s work, I imagine it would be similar. There’s no doubt that his music has left an indelible mark on my personality, but could I uproot it if I had to? I think so. It’s a deep root, but it doesn’t hold everything together.