Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 10/30/22 5:30 AM

Guest column: Selective offerings in the time of cancel culture

The art vs the artiste: that old divide

The other day, I revisited that classic, Gerald Durrell`s My Family and Other Animals, an old-gold favourite. After the read I fell into a rabbit hole of info on the Durrell family, and  was dumbfounded to find that much of what I had devoured as the — charming — truth on the page  had been exaggerations, even downright lies.

While booksellers describe this 1956 book as a `bewitching account of a magical childhood on the island of Corfu,`  Gerald Durrell apparently used his human family as polishing stones for his deprecating wit. His brother Lawrence comes off as something of a pompous ass, his sister Margaret as a simpering airhead, his mother Louisa Durrell as plain dumb. All mention of Lawrence`s partner Nancy was dropped from the book.

The islanders, their various eccentricities described in engaging detail,  were uniformly portrayed as having been won over by the Durrells; the truth was, many locals  didn’t take too kindly to these outsiders, especially when Lawrence and Nancy would frequently go skinny-dipping.

Gerald intimates that the family moved  to Corfu on a whim but actually it was because of family difficulties after Durrell Sr had died, in India. There was a nervous breakdown, there was an abortion, there was alcohol addiction, but not one word about any of these unsavoury happenings in this iconic  book.

So yes, the reader definitely does feel shortchanged. After the intense disappointment comes the outrage at having been thus deceived. And the realisation that cancel culture had been preceded by the outrage culture in earlier times.

We read and revered a writer, watched and adored an actor, stood before a wonderful piece of art, heard music that was pure  magic . Then we chanced upon information that was less than favourable  about the creator of those works we so admired. Disappointed, even crushed, we expressed much anger at the yawning gap between the individual and their actions. And we  learned one  lesson the hard way,  that a great artiste is not necessarily a  good human being.

Some of us gave up reading their works, going to stare transfixed at their art, watching their movies, listening to their music. Others continued to do all that, proclaiming that they didn’t like the artiste but were willing to give the art a chance.

But it stopped there. This was pre-cancel culture days, so perpetrator plus public were spared the trolling, the comments on social media threads, the public protests. I don’t know if this was necessarily a good thing but it was what it was.

One could argue that it is an author`s decision to fictionalize, gloss over, airbrush everything that doesn’t show them in a good light; an artist`s decision to continue making art, believing the consuming public will recognise the wall between the maker and what they make.

This wall stood as bulwark in the outrage culture days. It no longer does, in the cancel culture days.

Today the art pays the price for the artiste`s behaviour. It is how it is.

This appeared in the Sunday Express Magazine of 30 October 2022.

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cancel culturecolumnconcealing factsCorfuGerald Durrellgreat authorsguest columnMy Family and Other Animalsnot so good peopleselective presentationselective writingSheila Kumar

Sheila Kumar • October 30, 2022

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