"Whatever's negative that's clinging to us, 'I know we can shake it.'"
March 13, 2018 4:42 AM   Subscribe

Like A Ship (title track link) by Pastor TL Barrett and the Youth for Christ Choir may be one of the great lost gospel records - and one made by a duplicitous conman. Can we still enjoy something beautiful when made by someone later despicable?
posted by mippy (22 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh man, I love this song — ever since it appeared on that Good God compilation. Not sure I can read this, but there’s plenty of other art I love made by people I don’t. We’re all human, amiright?
posted by saintjoe at 4:59 AM on March 13


Okay, I read it anyway (sigh). Actually, it doesn’t ruin anything about the song, because when I hear it, I think about all those kids singing their hearts out in early ‘70s Chicago, and where they all are now, and what they went through to get from there to here.
posted by saintjoe at 5:16 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]


The music journalism is cribbing from breathless press releases that emphasize the album's obscurity, but what really sets Like a Ship Without a Sail apart is just the opposite thing - that it's by far the most popular traditional gospel album among people who don't otherwise listen to gospel. And even in the 1970s, Barrett was no storefront pastor, but a prominent figure in Chicago. Like a Ship was privately pressed, but it was produced by Gene Barge, one of the house producers for the Chess/Checkers/Cadet family of labels, which is to say one of the most prominent figures in Chicago music. Like many gospel artists, Barrett almost certainly privately pressed his album by choice rather than because he was unable to find a label. His later albums were on Gospel Roots, a well-distributed label. Barrett has never been obscure in his own cultural context. It always grinds my gears to see people acting like they're archaeologists because they've learned one thing about black popular culture.
posted by vathek at 5:30 AM on March 13 [16 favorites]


The last link does a kind of weird thing where it compares Barrett to a long list of rapists (often serial rapists) and then equivocates about it. Barrett, for his significant fiscal sins, has not been acused of rape and it’s not helpful to compare him to people who have. Hell, as religious and Chicago’s civic scandals go, this is pretty mild stuff (although significantly hurtful to those who trusted Barrett, of course), and Barrett made at least partial restitution. So liking this album is nowhere near as problematic as, say, being a fan of, say, Cosby or Jim Bakker, and pretending that it is isn’t helpful.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:45 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Enjoying this music is to me much less troubling than enjoying Jerry Lee Lewis records (which I would if I could, but I can’t). I’m not sure what this says about me. It’s not possible to draw clear lines around which art is irrevocably tainted by biography. I agree with saintjoe, however- a lot of people made this record, not just one. That helps.
posted by q*ben at 6:12 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Can we still enjoy something beautiful when made by someone later despicable?

I can. I might not give money to a person who has done bad things, but I'll take the good things they've done and I'll enjoy them.
posted by pracowity at 7:02 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]


vathek - thanks for the context. Interesting to know that it was never actually obscure in Chicago. I'm really, really not an expert in gospel music (and a long way from there) and came across it by accident when searching for outsider music on Spotify, so all I knew is that it had been recently reissued.

I also found the parallel drawn between Barrett and Cosby a little odd. In the UK, we've had our own Cosby style scandals of the past few years, where beloved entertainers and childhood icons turned out to be serial abusers, and the list of things that we can't enjoy without unpleasant shadows cast over them seems to have grown and growm. However, without having the religious context myself, I wondered if knowing that a preacher willfully defrauding his flock feels like a particular acute betrayal.
posted by mippy at 7:30 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Can we still enjoy something beautiful when made by someone later despicable?

I've been thinking about this recently. I've found that due to whatever combination of brain wiring and a privileged position of not having much experiences of injustice and mistreatment in my personal history (or that of my loved ones), I'm quite capable of separating the art from the artist in most cases, but not consistently. It's this inconsistency that fascinates me, prompting introspection and making me want to understand it.

Sometimes I take it upon myself to actively consume something created by objectionable people, just to see what reactions, if any, they elicit from me. It's funny that this got posted today, because just recently I added Bill Cosby: Himself, the legendary concert film from 1983, into my Watch Later queue on YouTube as a part of this continuing experiment, after stumbling upon this GQ article from 2013 with all these standup comedians praising its influence on them and the art of standup comedy itself.

Two main reasons for this: one, legitimate interest in the significant works of standup history. Two, another case study in my quest to verify my theory about which more or less despicable people's works I'm capable of consuming and possibly enjoying on their own merits, without their biographies getting in the way.

I choose to believe that anywhere between one fifth to half of all the media I've ever consumed and will ever consume has been and will be created wholly or in part by people who are appalling to some degree. Only a small subset have been revealed as such, but it would be naive of me to assume that more, perhaps a lot more of them would not qualify. "Knowing" that this is the case, I can't intellectually justify NOT separating the art from the artist. What relevance does it have if I know a creator to be shitty, since I "know" that there are plenty of undiscovered shitty creators behind a lot of the stuff I consume? (Note that this part is entirely subjective and by no means do I want to imply that this is the way that anyone else should feel about this. Individual brain wiring and privilege, and all that.) I try not to inadvertently cause known shitty creators to get money out of my content consumption, however, so it's nice to have illegally uploaded YouTube videos out there...

My theory, which I hope the Cosby experiment will move forward, is that I'm able to consume the creations of any people, very nearly without regard to how bad they are, if I didn't actively respect them before their despicability was revealed. That's the key point, I think. As a Finn, my only exposure to Cosby was The Cosby Show as a kid in the 80s and 90s, then some decades passed and *poof* he's a serial rapist. I had no opinion or active awareness of him in the meantime, and consequently no preexisting (dis)respect. But then theres's Scott Adams. The Dilbert comics and his books were hugely influential to me in from my late teens to my early thirties, I was an active fan, and then he turned out to be a colossal fuck nugget. I haven't been able or willing to read any of his stuff since, because there's a sense of actual betrayal there that I can't get over.

So that's my working thesis at the moment: if any existing respect for a creator is compromised, I can no longer consume their works. If no such respect previously existed, I probably can. Only more experimenting over time will tell if this is the whole story for me or not.
posted by jklaiho at 7:35 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Can we still enjoy something beautiful when made by someone later despicable?

You can, but you shouldn't, and I'll judge you hard for it if you do. :P

You lose nothing:
There is no dearth of great art in this world. It is no loss to give up beautiful things created by horrible people, because there are equally (or more) beautiful things out there created by reasonable people.

We have a moral obligation to stop doing things that benefit horrible people.
It's the same logic behind boycotting the corner bakery because the owner is Nazi. This is basic shit, people. Get your bread elsewhere or bake your own, dammit, and make sure your money doesn't go to someone who uses it to hurt people.

What about victims' art?
All the crying about losing access to art created by perpetrators drowns out concern for each victim damaged by that person. What about art created by those victims? Don't we have an obligation to actively encourage that and seek it out? What about crying for our lost access to art the victims will now never create because the perpetrator stole that potential from them? What about all the people who lost careers because they refused accept victimization in exchange for career opportunities? When we whine about perpetrators' art, our focus is misplaced in a way that damages their victims, and in fact is a facet of their continued victimization.

Since when are legal consequences the ONLY acceptable type of consequences?
Social rejection is a legitimate consequence too. We can't just throw up our hands and say whelp, if he hasn't been found guilty by a court of law, nothing more can be done. No! We're allowed to take ethical and moral stances against perpetrators even if they have done their time and "repaid their debt to society." We're allowed to reject art by anyone we damn well please for any reasons we damn well please. Social rejection is not a tool we should be giving up so easily, especially in cases where victims have little chance of ever being heard or believed, where perpetrators almost never see a day in court let alone a day in jail.
posted by MiraK at 8:01 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]


And PS: it's not just about giving money to artists who are despicable humans. It's also about giving them time, energy, attention, mentions, space, and prominence in our public discussions.

There are books I love by writers who I now know are pathetic human beings. I still love these books. I might even re-read the copies I own (though never without a twinge of guilt... I am trying to wean myself of them and focus instead on other things I love just as much or more). But I will keep the names of these books private. I will never mention them to even a friend in conversation, let alone in this public post, as something that I have loved and enjoyed. I will do everything in my power to hasten these books' demise into obscurity. Though I loved them, I do not want them to survive. I want other equally good books by better people to take the place occupied by them.
posted by MiraK at 8:13 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]


I choose to believe that anywhere between one fifth to half of all the media I've ever consumed and will ever consume has been and will be created wholly or in part by people who are appalling to some degree. Only a small subset have been revealed as such, but it would be naive of me to assume that more, perhaps a lot more of them would not qualify. "Knowing" that this is the case, I can't intellectually justify NOT separating the art from the artist. What relevance does it have if I know a creator to be shitty, since I "know" that there are plenty of undiscovered shitty creators behind a lot of the stuff I consume?

Without ever having articulated such a personal manifesto, I realize on reading that jklaiho's words pretty much echo my own feelings. I will boycott that which I know for a fact to be the sole, dedicated product of someone truly abhorrent (per my own subjective moral code). The extremes are easy to identify. It's harder when the lines get blurry.

Much like the definition of obscenity, when it comes to that which I will actively shun with predjudice... I'll know it when I see it. And then I'll decide what to do about it.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:58 AM on March 13


But then theres's Scott Adams.

If the dickery you are referring to was the infamous Metafilter flameout, then that's totally understandable. I find myself side-eyeing the books when I see them these days. I wasn't a huge fan before, but Dilbert amused me - now it's completely unpalatable. Why I feel like that so totally, and yet struggle with whether I should forsake Annie Hall from my list of all-time favourite films, is a weird thing.
posted by mippy at 9:12 AM on March 13


There are a number of questions one could ask about enjoying something made by people one finds despicable. First might be why one would separate artists or art producers from other modes of production and how thinking about terrible behavior in that broader sense then only applying it to a narrower subset might have implications about how willing we might be to make difficult choices. It's easier and more noticeable to give up an artist than work to avoid all products from problematic sources even if it supports the same kind of bad behavior or worse for being of greater scale.

At the same time, there is good reason to avoid enriching people who act in ways one is entirely opposed to, so not supporting bad people is certainly not itself bad.

In the case of artists though my personal feeling is that people would do well to look or listen more closely to the art itself since it is often the case that the attitude that is shown as despicable in real life application was often there all along in the art, and not infrequently celebrated for that very presence. Yet there are also times when a bad person can say something true and meaningful, beautiful or profound. The difference between a great artwork from a despicable artist and a great scientific discovery from a despicable scientist isn't that different if one sees art as something more than a vehicle for casual enjoyment, where one thing can be substituted for another without any difference in significance.

My own personal choice is to avoid, as best I can, supporting people I know to have done bad things without sufficient repercussion as they shouldn't profit from their bad behaviors, but works from the past or where there is no benefit to the creator involved are open. I find it important to think of artists more as workers than celebrities as celebrity itself is a huge burden on society. The nature of celebrity invites abuse, not all artists or famous people are abusive, but many are that aren't named for being so, or have their abuses only hinted at.

We'd have to throw out generations of art and other work if we were to try and seriously separate good from bad according to current prescription, only focusing on the few that do get named is more a fig leaf for our own moral security than an actual accounting of the problem. I'm not sure how many people are willing to dig very deeply into our history to try and make themselves entirely clean of connection to anyone who's acted against our hoped for ideals.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:28 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Can we still enjoy something beautiful when made by someone later despicable?

I think just like how certain modern products are important to someone's life even though the way they are made is of major ethical concern (e.g., all modern electronics), I think if someone has an artist or piece of media that they feel in some way is formative or important to them, then it should be okay to like it. I mean, they should know the bad parts of it, but that's as far as I would go and I wouldn't judge them harshly.

So for each person they have to make a personal calculus whether their individual enjoyment of something outweighs its harm. For me, I listen to Michael Jackson's music because it's been an important part of my life for decades. But I refuse to eat at Chick-Fil-A, because they're against gay marriage.
posted by FJT at 9:39 AM on March 13


Actually, it doesn’t ruin anything about the song, because when I hear it, I think about all those kids singing their hearts out in early ‘70s Chicago, and where they all are now, and what they went through to get from there to here.

This is about where I came down on this issue in some specific cases. I've had a blog pet project for about a year now, where I watch through and review all of the films that have ever been in those "1001 Movies to See Before You Die" books; and about three films in on the list, you get hit with D. W. Griffith and Birth Of A Nation. And, a few years from now, I'm going to start getting into all the Woody Allen movies on the list, and some films with Kevin Spacey, etc.

And the biggest thing that tipped me over into "watch anyway" was: I'm facebook-connected to the actor Colman Domingo (we worked on a play together about 3 years before his career started super-charging, he's a sweetheart), and about 3 years ago Colman was working on a film about the Nat Turner rebellion and he was really excited about it. But then when the film came out, so did a rape allegation against the director. And the film suffered and died a quick death at the box office.

I have no objection to the director being shamed for his past misdeeds - but it really bothered me that the way people shamed him also punished Colman, who was wholly innocent. I don't really know how else it could have gone down, I admit, because film is by its very nature a collaborative thing.

But it is the fact that it is collaborative that tipped me over into "watch anyway - for free if you can - if you have to for this blog project." Because every one of those films that is problematic because of one guy, has other people working on it whose talents also deserve to be appreciated. Birth of a Nation has some seriously problematic sentiments, but Lillian Gish is fantastic. The Usual Suspects may have Kevin Spacey, but it also has Gabriel Byrne and Benicio Del Toro. And in some cases - one of the other people on the film may have been the victim of the sexual assault in question (Hitchcock apparently attacked Tippi Hederen during The Birds and then pulled a Harvey-Weinsten blacklist on her). So - I've decided that I'm going ahead and watching the films at least this once, and just sort of doing an "Alan Smithee" on the bad dudes and focusing on the others involved (so Annie Hall becomes "Hey, I saw this great Diane Keaton film").

It may very well be possible that I won't be able to watch some films without thinking about Outside Incidents; and if I can't, well, that goes in the review as well. (I had a Buster Keaton film ruined for me that way - he waves a Stars-and-Bars flag at one point, and that bugged me.)

At the end of the day, though, this is just me. Your mileage may vary. I may not succeed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:48 AM on March 13 [5 favorites]


Its so much more complicated when it comes to collaborative art such as film. I keep thinking of the recent release of "The Death of Stalin" and how Jeffrey Tambor has been erased from promotional materials and cast interviews. I am so excited to see Steve Buscemi and Michael Palin and all the rest of them tear into this material, and yet...
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 9:48 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Its so much more complicated when it comes to collaborative art such as film.

Really, it's even more fraught a problem than thinking of it in terms of artists alone, I mean the entirety of Hollywood, Marvel, DC, and much of the music industry and other major media centers are themselves racist and sexist and have hidden or promoted bad behavior for decades. Avoiding despicable behavior almost means avoiding corporate industries of any sort in our current system.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:54 AM on March 13


I keep thinking of the recent release of "The Death of Stalin" and how Jeffrey Tambor has been erased from promotional materials and cast interviews.

Heh.
posted by pracowity at 10:21 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Can we still enjoy something beautiful when made by someone later despicable?

Autobahn, Volkswagen and Hugo Boss...

I think it's a matter of association - in case of films made by child molesters it may be still too raw, whereas the three cases above... Largely forgotten. That said, art is often personal, so I understand, and so it depends on what part of his/her personality the author put into it.
posted by Laotic at 11:15 AM on March 13


There was an interesting story in The New Yorker in 2007 about Adam Gadahn (aka Azzam the American) the Al Qaeda operative and Bin Laden adviser. His dad, Phil Gadahn (né Pearlman) made the 70s hippie rock album Relatively Clean Rivers. Chill music. Whodathunk.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 11:27 AM on March 13


Can we still enjoy something beautiful when made by someone later despicable?

There's a very Platonic vision of beauty implicit in this question; as if something "beautiful" can only be made by a beautiful soul. I'm also fascinated by how often this question seems to be raised these days. Partly, of course, that's because it's becoming so much easier to discover just how many beautiful things are made by genuinely despicable people. And partly because it's a question everyone can have an opinion on. But I wonder if some of the anxieties behind the question aren't due, to some degree, to the representational anxieties of living in a world which seems so virtual, so made. The impulse to seek not just beauty, but virtuous beauty (for whatever value of "virtue" and "beauty") in our things is soothing.

It's interesting, too, how, in a moment when everyone is their own critic, their own ad agency, even, even the sense of "to enjoy" tends to become indistinguishable from "to promote." Therefore, there is a sense that to enjoy something means to share it with others; to encounter something not worthy of sharing is by default to encounter something not worth enjoying.

Finally, in a world with a nearly unlimited supply of somethings to choose from, the choice of a something that meets with one's moral approval is, if nothing else, a useful heuristic.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:16 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


The work of art should and must be able to speak for itself. The virtues and vices of the artist, nor for that matter the intentions, hold no influence on the artwork. The idea that art is expression of a person's soul and that great art is evidence of moral or intellectual superiority, and conversely that perverts make perverted art, Entartete Kunst, is a dangerous idea embraced by totalitarian states and ideologies. Beautiful art becomes political testament to the superiority of a certain ideology, nation, race or sex, and the art of the others are considered vulgar, primitive or degenerated.

We should not idolise artists. They are not saints.
posted by cx at 2:38 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]


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