Don't Speak Ill of the Dead: The Mixed Legacies of Dead Artists

When a famous artist dies, people are quick to mourn them and speak highly of their creative genius and accomplishments. However, a lot of these artists weren’t exactly good people while they were living. So, what is it about death that seems to wash artists of all their sins?

Recently, fashion designer and Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld died. Karl made derogatory comments about plus size women and showcased his true misogyny when he spoke on the MeToo movement. Despite this, The New York Times spoke of Karl’s achievements  from birth to death and Apollo Magazine made their views clear with an article entitled ‘Karl Lagerfeld’s greatest creation was himself.’

Rapper XXXTentacion was shot to death in June of last year. His death was shrouded in controversy as he was facing trial for physical abuse against a former girlfriend in 2016. Though, when he died, he was not short of supporters and fans whose mourning helped them to forget the torture that he put his last girlfriend through. The New York Times even mentioned how the love vs hate for the rapper had divided the internet.

Perhaps it’s something to do with a Nostalgia Filter as TV Tropes describes. Regardless of what one was like in life, they are, more often than not “remembered as being better than they were.” This has a lot to do with the nostalgic happy memories that someone associated with the artist, especially if their works were discovered during the person’s youth. And subsequently, ‘the death effect’ comes into play shortly after an artist dies or years after they have produced some of their most successful works. Artsy depicts how ‘The death effect’ typically sees a surge in an artist’s prices shortly after they die, yet, it is actually more common for the works of a living artist to see their sales increase as they get older. This is because fans come to realize that the artist is nearing the end of their life and won’t be able to produce new works forever, making them more scarce.  The same principle applies when they die.

There is a new Michael Jackson documentary that premiered at Sundance and Channel 4 shortly after which re-exposes him as a paedophile through first-hand accounts from his alleged victims. There have been calls to ban the documentary as people don’t want MJ’s legacy and how they remember him to be tarnished. Since it’s a premiere, the documentary has divided people as to whether the ‘victims’ are after money or if they were simply too frightened to come out when he was alive and have now gained the courage to speak.

What moral responsibility do artists have? None. After all, art is a personal expression and is understood and enjoyed through the eyes of the beholder. It’s down to us to hold all humans responsible for their bad actions while simultaneously accepting that artists, just like us, are flawed humans that are much more than the work that they produce.

Tali Ramsey is a UK based writer.