The Chris Kabwato Column | So, what shall we do with great art by rogue artists?

Most people I know have not deleted R Kelly’s albums on whatever media they are stored on. Of course, they will only play the music in the safe confines of their car or home, away from prying eyes. It is like selling weed in the bad old days when it was illegal and frowned upon by our holier-than-thou society.

Those who play R Kelly are not indifferent to his wicked deeds. They grapple with a key question: can we ever separate the art – music, film, painting etc – from the artist?

A question attendant to this is how equal the sanctions meted out against errant artists are. If the sanctions are to remove the offending artist’s music from streaming platforms, why do we maintain the films produced by a monster like Harvey Weinstein? When you dig deeper you realise that white privilege means that the cancel culture is never applied the same way.

Let us take examples of two very contrasting white filmmakers: Leni Riefenstahl who was Adolf Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, and Roman Polanski, a French-Polish filmmaker who ran away from the United States of America in 1977 after committing statutory rape.

Leni Riefenstahl – Hitler’s favourite filmmaker

Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl was born in 1902 and died in 2003. She was a producer, director and screenwriter who became best known for producing Nazi propaganda. Now hear this; in 1935 she directed, produced, wrote, and co-edited the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will and for her efforts she received “worldwide attention and acclaim”. The adulation does not stop there. The film is widely considered “one of the most effective and technically innovative propaganda films ever made”.

In Triumph of the Will, Ms Riefenstahl chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. The film has Hitler and his leadership team haranguing the obviously happy crowd and also shows the militia or stormtroopers of the Nazi Party and the notorious Schutzstaffel (SS). The core message of the film is to assert that Germany is back as a power after the humiliation of the peace treaties after the First World War.

Various literature treats rather lightly Ms Riefenstahl’s ‘platonic’ relationship with Hitler and her own standing with the Nazi Party. After the Second World War, Riefenstahl was arrested and found to be a Nazi “fellow traveller”, that is, a mere sympathiser to the Nazi ideology. She even claimed not to have known about the Holocaust. A beautiful blonde with blue eyes could not be cancelled like Kanye West. Her postwar work included chilling out in the Sudan, photographing the Nuba people and publishing books on them.

It is interesting that her films, especially The Triumph of the Will, are on YouTube, ostensibly for educational use only.

Roman Polanski – a celebrated fugitive from justice

Another filmmaker that our paragons of virtue in the great Western world do not seem to know what to do with is Roman Polanski. Here is the low down from Wikipedia on the crimes Polanski committed in the US:

On 11 March 1977, three years after making Chinatown, Polanski was arrested at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for the sexual assault of 13-year-old Samantha Gailey. Gailey had modelled for Polanski during a Vogue photoshoot the previous day around the swimming pool at the Bel Air home of Jack Nicholson. Polanski was indicted on six counts of criminal behaviour, including rape. At his arraignment, he pleaded not guilty to all charges. Many executives in Hollywood came to his defence. Gailey’s attorney arranged a plea bargain in which five of the six charges would be dismissed, and Polanski accepted. In 1978, Polanski became a fugitive from American justice and could no longer work in countries where he might face arrest or extradition.  

Over the years Polanski has gone on to make award-winning movies such as The Pianist (2002) and has even taken photos together with his American victim. When his film The Palace was included at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, the Festival head Alberto Barbera defended the inclusion, “I don’t understand why one cannot distinguish between the responsibilities of the man and those of the artist. Polanski is 90 years old, he is one of the few working masters, he made an extraordinary film…I stand firmly among those who in the debate distinguish between the responsibility of the man and that of the artist.”

Well said, Mr Barbera. Now can you also defend Kanye West and say, “Kanye West is an artist and fashion designer. His Yeezy shoe design for Adidas is a work of art and we should separate the shoe from Kanye the insufferable person.”

Adidas, with its interesting connection to Nazi Germany (founder Adi Dassler was a member of the Nazi Party), did not think along the lines of Barbera’s logic and proceeded to pull the rug under Kanye. With the cancellation of the mutual agreement between the artist and the shoemaker, we saw how that went down – unsold mountains of inventories of Yeezy shoes and a tanking share price. The fact that Kanye was diagnosed with bipolar disorder was never considered. Instead, we read the “charges” in the New York Times with lurid details on how the artist had expressed his love for Hitler on many occasions and had once drawn the swastika. It all smelt of a fishing expedition or a “gotcha moment”.

Anyway, since the Germans have become the most ardent trackers of antisemitic language, I do hope they will do right by the people of Namibia over the Herero Genocide. Reparations and a proper apology are long overdue.

The destruction of the Black Family and the lynching of the Black Man

The genius of slavery and colonialism was to recognise that the destruction of the black family would ensure perpetual domination even in the absence of visible chains and prison bars. The drum majorettes in the vilification of black artists are black people armed with unlimited data, social media accounts, acres of time, boredom, envy, and brains the size of a pea. Nothing unites black people like hatred of each other, whether along ethnic lines or national ones, or merely along class lines.

On the other side of the railway line, old white rockers continue to behave badly and rake in millions of dollars in concert tours. For some reason, their art is separated from their persons. I hope when you next join in the social media vilification of a black artist who has not been convicted of any crime, you shall ask yourself some serious questions about whose interests you are serving. If you still feel strongly about the issue, please ask the deeper questions around the connection between artistic product (music, film, paintings, books) and the person who produced the work.