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HAT Forum: Humanism’s Relationship with the Professional and Personal Lives of Artists

  • The 519 Community Centre 519 Church Street Toronto, ON, M4Y 2C9 Canada (map)

              Discussion Questions:

1.     As humanists, should our perceptions and/or support of an artist’s work be affected by questionable associations and/or activities committed in their personal lives?

2.     If we are to be affected be such associations or activities, are there thresholds or limits, if any, that would initiate appropriate grounds to distance oneself from an artist and their work?

3.     Are boycotts of an artist’s work ever necessary?

4.     Controversies of living artists are dominant stories in our media, but do we have reason to still address historical ones? 

5.     Is it possible to separate the artist as an individual from the artist’s work?

6.     Do we see parallels with the professional and personal lives of those in other fields such as in sports, science, or medicine?  Do certain professions require a higher ethical standard of conduct outside of the occupational sphere?

*Below are some supplementary examples of controversies throughout history.  These cases are not necessarily intended as discussion points in themselves, but rather as a means that may assist in stimulating ideas for discussion.

In 1590, Renaissance-era composer Carl Gesualdo (the Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza) discovered his wife having an affair with Fabrizio Carafa (third Duke of Andria and seventh Count of Ruovo).  Enraged, Gesualdo murdered the couple at the scene, and returned a second time to mutilate the bodies to ensure they were deceased.  After an investigation, Gesualdo was cleared of any crime and went on to compose, becoming an influential figure of the renaissance period and beyond due to his innovative uses of chromatic progressions and harmony.

The German composer Richard Wagner has been highly influential, often cited as a figure that revolutionised opera through his development of the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art").  While it is hard to discount the talents of Wagner, his views expressed in a number of his essays have troubled many.  Such views included overt attitudes of anti-Semitism, and a belief in the racial superiority of the Aryan race.  Wagner often had Arthur de Gobineau (a proponent of racist science) as a guest of honour at his birthday parties, and when conducting the work of Felix Mendelssohn (a Jewish composer), he would wear gloves that he would later discard after the concert.  While Wagner’s music is frequently performed in the 21st century, some have been critical of performing his works in certain contexts, and locations such as Israel.

During a performance in Birmingham on August 1976, an intoxicated Eric Clapton made a declaration of support for former Conservative minister Enoch Powell (known for his anti-immigration Rivers of Blood speech).  The guitarist claimed that England had "become overcrowded" and that they needed to support Powell to stop their country from becoming "a black colony".  He then proclaimed, "get the foreigners out” while using a series of ethnic slurs, and chanted the slogan of the National Front, "Keep Britain White.”[1]  Shortly after Clapton’s incident, musician David Bowie claimed that Britain was ready for fascism, stating: "Britain is ready for a fascist leader... I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism... I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership." He would also go further to claims such as "Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars" and "You've got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up”.[2]  The fallout from Clapton and Bowie’s comments would play a strong role in inspiring the development of Rock Against Racism.  While Bowie would later recant his statements, citing a delusional state of addiction, Clapton would still defend Powell decades later, denying any associated views of racism.

In March 1977, filmmaker Roman Polanski was arrested and charged in Los Angeles with five offences against a 13-year-old girl: rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor.  Though Polanski initially accepted a plea bargain, which included psychiatric treatment, he fled to France upon learning that he would likely be imprisoned at his formal sentencing.  Polanski has continued to be a high-profile filmmaker, but has avoided the U.S.A. due to ongoing extradition requests.

In 1997, Glam rock musician Gary Glitter, most well-known for the popular sports anthem Rock and Rock Part 2 was arrested and convicted of child pornography charges.  Glitter would later be arrested for numerous sexual relations with minors.  Sporting events still use Glitter’s song, though some use similar sounding cover version.  Glitter is currently incarcerated, but receives gifts from fans who still support him as an artist.

On July 26th 2003, French singer Bertrand Cantat attacked his girlfriend, actress Marie Trintignant after a dispute over a text message; leaving her beaten into a deep coma.  Trintignant died several days later due to swelling of the brain, and Catant would be convicted of involuntary manslaughter.  Cantat received early release in 2007, and resumed work with his popular French rock band, Noir Désir.  His return to the public eye generated outrage and debate about reintegration into society, notably when he was chosen to perform in a production of Chœurs in Montreal.    


[1] Bainbridge, Luke (2007-10-14). "The ten right-wing rockers". The Guardian. London. Retrieved from

[2] John. (2015- 09-22).”The MU’s Response to David Bowie’s ‘NAZI’ Salute”. The Musicians’ Union: A History (1893-2013). Retrieved from bowies-nazi-salute/