It came as something of a shock to read that the latest person whom we should be cancelling is the artist formerly known as Georg Friederich Händel. When you next listen to the call to devotion of Messiah, or the melodies of Water Music, you may feel somewhat conflicted knowing that their composer was involved in the slave trade. It was not just that he was being paid for his work by people involved in the slave trade. He was an actual and successful investor.
Historians have recently discovered that Handel invested in the Royal African Company, one of Britain’s two official slave trading enterprises. The National Archives at Kew hold a set of the company’s “stock transfers” for 1720, signed by the composer: these are purchase and sale orders for actual human beings, not stock in the sense of stocks and shares. The Royal African Company shipped more Africans into bondage than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. At the time he was writing Water Music, he was making money from slavery.
As we also know, however, Handel gave the rights to the Messiah to the ‘Foundlings Hospital’ (a home for orphans) and money to charities looking after musicians down on their luck. But despite these acts of charity, we already knew that Handel was not the most pleasant of people. The story goes of him inviting friends for a meal. When it was finished, Handel himself withdrew to another room where, when his friends went to look for him, he was found to be tucking into another very copious meal. The friends left in disgust at his gluttony. Whether or not they still listened to his music is not recorded.
But what are we supposed to do? If Colston’s statue should no longer be displayed, should those of Handel be removed? Should we instead invest in the numerous explanatory plaques needed in order to attach to those very many statues, as the government would presumably wish? The public buildings in Bristol which Colston paid for and the various roads bearing his name in honour of his philanthropy, although still there, are now being renamed. He is being erased from Bristol’s history. In order to continue to listen to Handel’s works, should his works now be attributed instead to that that well-known composer ‘anonymous’?
His anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’ has been played at every British coronation ceremony since it was commissioned for that of George II, who was himself the man in overall charge of British slave trading. Should Charles abandon it when his turn comes round in favour of the theme from ‘Game of Thrones’? Should we stop performing Messiah at Easter, or at any other time, and accept the loss to the richness of our lives in order to … in order to achieve what exactly? It won’t bring back any lives diminish any suffering or compensate their descendents – it’s long since out of copyright. But maybe I’m taking too pragmatic a view of morality.
And in the wake of BLM and the MeToo and Trans movements, many people have decided on a more purist form of morality. They consider that actors, musicians and other public figures who did not behave as they should have, should be permanently ‘cancelled’ as punishment for their wrongdoing. They have decided to boycott their work and refuse even to engage in discussion of their views. Some media companies have literally cancelled their contracts with artists following allegations of misconduct. Netflix and Kevin Spacey come to mind.
Although we know the official reason for this, the underlying motivation may not actually have been a purely moral one, but more a desire to protect themselves from being financially affected by association. Ridley Scott’s removal of Kevin Spacey from his new movie ‘All the Money in the World’ at that time, was quite openly a business decision. Scott said that the commercial impact the revelations against Spacey could have had on the $40m film were uppermost in his mind.
So then, such responses are not responses to the artworks themselves. The artworks are very rarely morally suspect in themselves. They are motivated by external reasons, those relating to the artist’s standing and to resulting financial issues. I can see that society’s wish to persuade prominent people living amongst us not to act in certain ways has at least some justification. Reasonable pressure however is one thing, but unfortunately the angry mob is and has always been with us. It means that the type of behaviour discouraged can swing wildly from one thing to another without any apparent reason, and repentance by the sinner is never taken as a good enough reason for forgiveness by society.
Others, however, argue that art and artist can be kept entirely separate. As we have seen with Handel, it is indeed difficult to see what benefit to society comes from cancelling the works of people long since dead. A more modern example I suppose would be the music of Michael Jackson. His albums however still feature on Spotify and there seems to be no suggestion that his music was a result of his paedophilia. And so, I imagine that his fans will still dance to his tunes but not perhaps idolise the man in quite the same way. Likewise, the recently departed Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism does not give us a reason to forsake his children’s stories which do not peddle this prejudice. If James and the Giant Peach does not require our endorsement of anti-Semitism or even hint at it, why cancel it?
Going back a little further, however, I am tempted by outright banning in the case of Richard Wagner, for the very good reasons that his works go on for far too long, as well as the fact that he was a repulsive antisemitic nationalist. Wagner wrote a violently antisemitic booklet in the 1850s called Das Judebthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music) insisting the Jews poisoned public taste in the arts. He founded the Bayreuth festival as a monument to his narcissism and this, in the 1930s and 1940s, was used by the Nazi party as a propaganda tool against the Jews. His music accompanied virtually all the Nazi’s celebratory occasions, something of which we can be sure he would have approved. So then, surely any Wagnerian prepared to celebrate his music at Bayreuth should, at the least, be very aware of its origins in Wagner’s appallingly anti-Semitic world view, and the consequent utter devotion to his music by Hitler.
But the further back we travel in time, as we have said before, the further we travel into that foreign country where they do things differently, whether through lack of knowledge, strange (to us) but strongly-held beliefs, or through the need to live life in a way which promoted survival in circumstances of hardship and social pressures we cannot now begin to imagine.
And so, what of Shakespeare? The Merchant of Venice, portrays both Christians and Jew as very unpleasant, but comes down on the side of the Christians, an accurate reflection of the anti-Semitism of the era, something no doubt Shakespeare shared. The Taming of the Shrew praises deeply unpleasant male chauvinist behaviour. Indeed, most of his plays downgrade the role of women to the chattels which they then were.
Does this mean that we should no longer watch them? Personally, I find the Merchant and the Taming of the Shrew to be quite squirm-inducing to watch, regardless of the efforts of many modern producers, and so are not plays I am likely to choose to see again. I’m not sure though that I want to embargo the rest of his works. Public morality will continue to change. To say that it will ‘evolve’ implies some sort of progress, which is too strong. But what we should not do is throw out works of genius, those not themselves in significant conflict with our moral code, simply because their creator held views we would disapprove of now – Wagner, of course, being the exception.
21 June 2021