Reading Slate’s coverage of the R. Kelly trials fills me with that self-loathing that comes from being entertained by morally toxic junk culture. Levin’s style is funny and slick, but there’s a dead hole in the place where any analysis or bigger picture might be sketched in. The hardest part about the piece is the undercurrent of class disdain that hangs over the diaries, when people named Sparkle argue with an an attorney they are “doing the dozens” as opposed to just having a nasty exchange on the stand. That tittering “it’s like the ghetto version of The Hills” starts to sink in your stomach when you realize that the man on trial may in fact be a prolific, serial child molester who, in this case, decided to film himself urinating on the face of a little girl. The only people who seem more repellant are Kelly’s Manson girl courtroom fans vying for his attention between all this boring sexual abuse. Aren’t there any single serial killers that need pen pals?
Of course, the age old question here is whether or not you should try to separate art from the artists, especially since talent is an indiscriminate whore who would just as soon make Jeffrey Dahmer a figure skater as Kristina Yamaguchi. But it’s a principle that in practice comes with little consistency or coherence. At some level you have to forgive artists for their ugly humanity, but at what point does the art implicate the viewer in something sinister. I cringe when I first read that Johnny Deep purchased some paintings of pedophile/serial killer John Wayne Gacy precisely because this is a no brainer on the artist/art distinction. It’s Gacy’s sickening crimes which produce the market for his art and not great art that just so happens to be a product of a sickening mind. With R. Kelly, the problem will not be so severe, in part because he’s just not so seriously talented that his music needs to be framed in any ethically grand conflict. But still, one does have to wonder if he’s convicted if that changes the probable sexual object of his infinite number of lamely metaphored sex jams. Will it still be easy to bump along to “Ignition” if you know that key is destined for a thirteen year old? Listening to R. Kelly obviously wouldn’t make you a child molester, but in all cases like this, the question becomes how much the artist pollutes your experience of their art by obscuring its virtues with their vices.