The Danger of Hero Worship

Our world has lost an artist who inspired and affected people across age and cultural boundaries.  As we have mourned and reminisced over the loss of David Bowie, many of us have become aware of stories that might threaten the memories we cherish.

Important dialog is taking place on the internet, in blogs and in comments. Like most important dialog, it makes people uncomfortable.

Did David Bowie rape a 13 year old girl? From what I’ve been reading, it seems likely.

Instead of dissecting the past in terms of what one individual may have done (as many  have done with others like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby) I will examine why we, as a society, and as individuals, don’t want to look.

Many people live in fear that if they begin to examine these issues, they will lose something they love. They fear they will no longer be able to enjoy the art and music that has shaped and deeply impacted their lives.

They also wish to hold onto the person who inspired them as an untarnished hero.  Rather than lose something precious to them, they turn away from the discussion, altogether.

Artists are not their art.  Art exists independently of the artist.  

I come from a family of artists and musicians.  Never once have I felt that the art I create comes directly from me.  I’ve felt that art moves through me.  What intention I have when I make the art, if I have intention at all, may have little to no bearing on how the art is experienced by others.  The art is its own, after it is birthed.  Because of my own feelings toward my creations, it’s been easy for me to view art independent from the artist.

I can read the dialogs of Plato and still find instruction despite the fact that his culture would have had little room for my voice, as a woman.  If a book, concept, or quote stands on its own, I can use it to feed me apart from how the author may have intended.  I can read Enlightenment thinkers who were never able to live up to their own beautiful ideals and still find inspiration.

There is, of course, a valid concern that we may not want to give monetary support to living artists, musicians, writers, and entertainers, if we feel they did abuse people, or may still be abusing.   Each person can examine whether they want to remain patrons of any individual, though I’d ask those same people to give as much thought regarding each dollar they spend in any regard.   I doubt any of us is unscathed by connection to exploitation in this way, even when we try (we should still try).

However, I don’t think we need a moral crisis over the consumption of art. If you’re looking for art/music only from saints, you will likely be left with no art and no music.

Artists are people.  People are complex.

Do we need to lose our heroes? Maybe. Or, perhaps we need to redefine what “hero” means.

Hero worship relates in some fashion to family pride and nationalism.  It draws on the same desire to protect that which we hold dear as though it were a part of our own body.  We have difficulty finding fault in any person, or group, to whom we’ve developed that kind of attachment.

Hero vs. villain is a flawed notion, as presented in our culture. We deify our heroes and view attention brought to failings as an offense.  I’ve witnessed this reaction, in the past year alone, in regard to criticisms of  Bill Cosby, Jon Stewart, various political figures, and police officers.  It appears that people are allowed to either love or hate someone.  Yet, finding flaws can be a high form of love when we ask, “Can you do better?”

Certain people in our society have bonded to the concept of police in general and glorify the officers in abstraction, while others find all police to be villainous.  Neither group are able to view police as individuals.  The nuance of the individual is also lost with those who will bond to one political party, and malign another.  Read any comment section on a political article and you’ll find ad hominems of: “That’s what I’d expect from a (insert “Republican” or “Democrat”) like you.”

Furthermore, it’s important that we examine which groups we, as a society, readily and consistently vilify.  I’ve seen many people share articles  showing that rowdy white people at sporting events are portrayed as “revelers” while rowdy people of color protesting are portrayed as “thugs.”  We can witness statistics which bear out that people of color are policed in ways that white people are not; it’s impossible for me to imagine a black militia being allowed to take over a portion of Baltimore and claim it as their own.  I don’t believe the response from authorities would be at all the same as we’ve seen with the militia in Oregon, even if the occupied area were uninhabited.

If we are able to search for excuses for our heroes, who essentially are strangers to us, how can we fail to extend the same understanding to those who are, actually, equally unknown to us?  In all of these circumstances, people are seeking to prove that a person is good, or bad.

In truth, there are no good people. There are no bad people. This oversimplification is a false dichotomy.

In a strict definition, a good person would find it impossible to do something bad and a bad person would, likewise, never do anything good. That’s just not how humans are.

Yet, there is good action, and bad action.

Good and bad are what we do, not what we are.

As individuals, we are all made up of the sum of *all* of our actions. But that doesn’t come out to a grade at the end. It’s more like each action still lives on, with all of its consequence attached. Each of us should appreciate that all our own actions play out in this way.

It’s important that we focus on the culture (that’s us) that supports these events rather than singularly focus on any one individual.  In what way does our society prime young women to offer themselves to men, sexually?  In what way do we prime men to treat women as something which exists for them? In what ways do we still excuse the men and blame the young girls?

Do we treat a young girl who has been with a rock star with a similar attitude that we treat a young boy who has been with any older woman: you were so lucky.   When we do this, our reactions make it harder for a person who was harmed to say, “This wasn’t what I wanted,” even to themselves.

I wonder how much of what our culture does relates to family dynamics within households.  I know of too many situations where a child was abused and if the child wished to speak out, the rest of the family condemned them and essentially said the victim would be the one ruining the family.   It seems like we still get angry at the ones who are telling us they’re hurt.  This is part of what is meant by the term “rape culture.”

If you start to read articles, you’d be hard pressed to find any musician of the 70’s era that isn’t linked to sex with teens. Given the way the music and art scene is described, even if one could argue Bowie wasn’t involved with any 13 year old, he was certainly surrounded by friends who were.

This means everyone around, at the time, was aware of what was happening.

I watched a video of Dinah Shore interviewing Iggy Pop where he talks about cutting himself with a bottle while on stage to punish himself because he feels guilty about leaving a 13 year old girl stranded, at the airport. Bowie is sitting next to him during this interview. I had a bad feeling about what that might imply even before reading anything about Bowie’s possible involvement with a minor. Yet, Dinah Shore doesn’t seemed fazed one bit.

I don’t believe we have to abandon art because the artists have done things we abhor but we do need to have the courage to look at what has happened so that we may say “how did/does our culture foster this?”

If I have a friend I love who has done something wrong, I will call them out on it. It doesn’t mean I’m saying, “You are bad.” I’m saying “This *action* is unacceptable.”  Similarly, we can condemn an action of a beloved artist of any kind and still make use of whatever they created that had merit.

I think it’s important we call out those artists who may be currently harming someone, or who have yet to own to past abuse.

For artists who have passed on, we must accept that genius does not equal greatness in terms of ethics. It never did. It also doesn’t equal a pass.

If we can separate the art from the artists, perhaps we can allow ourselves to look more closely at things which we may not want to, and ask questions, and have conversations about these topics.

Understanding that Bowie was an addict, and owned to harming those around him while an abuser, I’d like to think he regretted any action he took, or failed to take, regarding other abuse around him. I’d like to think that. Is it true? I’ll certainly never know.

It’s hard for me to reconcile a man so evolved in so many ways, championing so many virtues, who would fail so glaringly in this one. Yet, sadly, it’s not uncommon in our society.

For me, I don’t want to look at the past with accusation and say “they.” I want to look to the present and the future to say “We” can do better.

I think we are already doing better because, in my youth, these conversations were not happening. Women were always blamed for anything bad that happened to them. Let’s, at least, safely discard that concept and move forward, with courage, to face the failings of heroes so we can all learn to be better.

I don’t think we have to abandon the art. I do think it’s necessary to abandon the hero.



*Correction: an earlier version of this piece asked if Bowie “had sex” with a 13 year old girl.  This has been corrected to properly state this as rape.