What 'Leaving Neverland' Tells Us About the Legacies of Toxic Geniuses in the Arts
This week, a look at how a pop-cultural mega-scandal reverberates in the art industry…
Last Sunday and Monday, HBO aired Leaving Neverland, director Dan Reed’s two-part, four-hour documentary on two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who have come forward as adults to accuse Michael Jackson of sexually abusing each of them for multiple years of their childhoods. The film has already ignited the fiercest backlash (and counter-backlash) regarding the late King of Pop’s legacy since he was first investigated for such violations in 1993. And I think the response to Leaving Neverland has direct implications for the art market, both regarding Jackson specifically and other artists linked to predatory behavior.
The first reverberation in our industry lands in the museum sector. On Tuesday, Alex Greenberger of ARTnews confirmed that “Michael Jackson: On the Wall,” an exhibition of contemporary artworks all centered on Jackson’s life and music, will continue its European tour as planned.
“On the Wall” debuted at London’s National Portrait Gallery last year before traveling to Paris’s Grand Palais, where it closed this Valentine’s Day. The next iteration, at the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, is slated to open later this month, and its final presentation, at Finland’s Espoo Museum of Modern Art, will go on view in August.
While the Espoo Museum did not offer a comment to Greenberger, he writes the following about the exhibition’s next venue:
In a statement to ARTnews, the Bundeskunsthalle said that the show “reflects on the cultural effect of Jackson, but does not elaborate on his biography,” adding, “The Bundeskunsthalle is closely following the current controversial discussion surrounding the film documentary Leaving Neverland. The allegations are shocking, but the process [of verifying the victims’ claims] is not yet completed and has become much more difficult since the death of Michael Jackson.”
The Bundeskunsthalle’s response has some legitimacy. As Gareth Harris mentioned in The Art Newspaper, “the London show included Jordan Wolfson’s Neverland, a video of footage taken from Jackson’s 1993 live broadcast from Neverland Ranch in which he vigorously denies child sex abuse allegations.” That reminder alone is enough to prevent “On the Wall” from being hagiography. At the same time, we can’t overlook that the show is produced with the cooperation of the Michael Jackson Estate, which has sued HBO for $100 million over Leaving Neverland and gone scorched earth on Reed and the two accusers at his film’s center.
So far, though, the art industry has proven more resistant to canceling Jackson than others where he made a mark. Select radio stations in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands have decided to shelve Jackson’s entire catalogue of hits since Leaving Neverland’s initial broadcast. And on Friday, James L. Brooks, executive producer of The Simpsons, stated that the show’s creators would sideline a beloved 1991 episode in which Jackson voices a character institutionalized for believing he is, you guessed it, Michael Jackson.
But this conversation matters to the art market for reasons bigger than just the fate of one exhibition.
Several disclaimers are in order before we continue. As New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris wrote, Leaving Neverland is “not a feat of investigative journalism so much as an act of bearing witness.” The only people interviewed on camera are Robson, Safechuck, and their family members. It excludes anyone who could represent the Michael Jackson Estate and all other individuals claiming knowledge of evidence with bearing on the accusations.
The film does not mention that Robson and Safechuck each sued the estate for millions of dollars after Jackson’s death, only for the suits to be dismissed for exceeding the statute of limitations. (Both are now under appeal.) It does not mention that Robson, a leading choreographer and stage director famous for his work with Britney Spears, ‘NSYNC, and the FOX dance-competition series So You Think You Can Dance?, only brought his civil case after being “denied a role in a Michael Jackson-themed Cirque Du Soleil production,” according to the estate.
The film does, however, directly grapple with the estate’s other would-be smoking gun: that Safechuck gave a statement in Jackson’s defense in 1993, when the late star was first sued in civil court and criminally investigated for child sexual abuse—and that Robson testified on Jackson’s behalf in both 1993 and 2005, when Jackson was ultimately acquitted of child molestation charges brought by a Santa Barbara prosecutor. (Jackson ultimately paid over $25 million to settle the 1993 civil case, after which the concurrent criminal investigation was dropped largely because the “primary alleged victim” refused to testify. As a part of the settlement, the star admitted no “wrongful acts.”)
Whether you believe Robson and Safechuck depends in no small part on whether you view these contradictions as proof of their dishonesty or proof that survivors of trauma must often walk a long, nonlinear path to acknowledgment and coping. Personally, I land firmly in the latter category. And since I’m clearly not the only one in the art world or the wider world convinced by Leaving Neverland, we have to return to “On the Wall”—and then go far beyond it.
AN AMORAL MARKET
Each of the works comprising “On the Wall” now carries conjoined questions to its current owners: Do you want to keep a piece premised on a megastar who stands accused many times over of arguably the most monstrous behavior imaginable, even if that piece is either critical of Jackson or preceded the first public allegations of abuse in 1993? If not, what has the reignited controversy done to that piece’s market value, if not its prospects of being accepted as a gift by a public collection?
The first question is a purely personal one. The second is not. It is true that art depicting problematic subjects (see: portraits of Michael Jackson) and art by problematic authors (see: Jackson’s music) may require different approaches. But both are useful to consider. And we have evidence suggesting the art world lacks the unified moral conviction it would need for the works in “On the Wall” to suffer commercially for their association with Jackson, whether they deserve to or not.
To me, the most useful comp here is Maurizio Cattelan’s Him, the sculpture of a child-size Adolf Hitler kneeling with hands clasped as if in prayer. Like many of the works in “On the Wall,” it is a piece by a blue-chip artist about a hugely triggering historical dead man. In fact, Him is arguably more problematic than any work about Jackson. Even if you believe Jackson serially abused perhaps dozens of children, his death makes it all but impossible to definitively prove as much. In contrast, Hitler was a verified overseer of a genocide that took millions of lives.
And yet, when an edition of Him last entered the public market, at Christie’s New York in 2016, it sold for $17.2 million (including fees) against a high estimate of $15 million.
How is this possible? Partly because of the reminder I give a few times a year: The art market is a niche market. All that it takes for a problematic work to reach a robust price is one rich person who doesn’t care about broader public perception. (Of course, few would interpret Him as a straightforward endorsement of its subject. And as anyone who saw The Price of Everything knows, Christie’s buyer for Him was Jewish mega-collector Stefan Edlis, who fled the Third Reich’s grip on his native Vienna as a teenager in 1941. Calling this a psychologically complicated acquisition is a severe understatement.)
We’ve seen more evidence of this phenomenon elsewhere in the market. Just consider the auction results for Richard Prince’s Spiritual America, his appropriation of a commercial photograph featuring a fully nude, provocatively posed, 10-year-old Brooke Shields. Most recently, an edition of the piece sold within estimate for $3.9 million (including fees) at Christie’s themed sale “If I Live, I’ll See You Tuesday” in May 2014.
Now, thanks to its invocation of toxic masculinity and sexual exploitation—in fairness, one that Christie’s catalogue essay argues Prince is tacitly interrogating, not propagating—I think Spiritual America could take a bigger financial hit than Him were it to return to market in the wake of #MeToo. Yes, both works are more scandalous than ever in an era when a growing proportion of viewers assesses artwork first and foremost through the lens of sociopolitics rather than value-neutral aesthetic merit. But Spiritual Americaslams head-on into the issues with the most urgency right now, whereas Him tries to tap-dance on ground that is much more settled, if eternally (and justifiably) sensitive. It’s the difference between jamming your finger into an open wound or a scar.
But I still think that it’s unrealistic to expect the art market to be utterly devoid of wealthy outlier collectors willing to ignore, if not gravitate toward, such blatantly problematic works––regardless of where they fall on the current spectrum of offense. So it’s hard for me to believe that pieces depicting Michael Jackson will suffer much after Leaving Neverland. And that prospect opens the door for an even longer shadow to slide through.
A LASTING LEGACY?
Near the end of his piece on Leaving Neverland, Wesley Morris confronts a disturbing reality about Jackson’s impact on pop music, both during and after his time actively making hits: Even if we reached universal agreement about the need to erase Jackson from the record, it may be impossible. He writes:
Michael Jackson’s music isn’t a meal. It’s more elemental than that. It’s the salt, pepper, olive oil and butter. His music is how you start. And the music made from that—that music is everywhere, too. Where would the cancellation begin?
Despite visual art’s dramatically smaller reach in comparison to pop music, all of the above is just as true for genuinely pivotal talents in the art world. I’m pretty confident that, if the sexual harassment allegations stick to him, we would lose nothing essential by editing the arc of art history to extract Chuck Close. I can’t say the same for Pablo Picasso, whose well-documented toxic masculinity may have rivaled his creative genius in scope and scale. Even if the thousands of us who view and work with art wanted to enact a mass boycott, how could we extract his work and its influence from art history without turning it into a parody?
Like Morris, I don’t think it’s possible. After all, Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, a portrait of a fully nude, 13-year-old flower seller whose impoverishment almost undoubtedly helps explain why she would model for a 24-year-old superstar painter, just sold for $115 million at Christie’s New York in May 2018—and was announced to go on view at the Musee d’Orsay later in the year. The sale and the announcement both came over seven months after the #MeToo movement emerged from accusations of sexual misconduct and rape by Harvey Weinstein.
That twin outcome may say it all. Well into a would-be cultural sea change, a politically meaningful re-evaluation of Picasso was just as absent at the apex of the niche art market and the (somewhat) more populist museum world.
Which is exactly why I think those works in “On the Wall”—and so many others that are problematic because of their creators—are probably safe from a purely transactional standpoint. But that doesn’t mean we should shut off the alarms they’ve now tripped in the broader culture. If we can’t be free of the signal, we should never be free of the sirens, either.
That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: At some point, anything that deserved evaluation deserves re-evaluation.