Richard Wagner is not the only artist who has provoked controversy because of his non-artistic conduct. Many lovers of art have reviled the artist. We can think of Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin, Christopher Marlowe, George Gordon Lord Byron, Albert Speer, and Robert Frost among those whose art we are eager to teach our children, but whose lives we would not seek them to emulate.
Why it is that Wagner is “roasted” with a passion more profound and more relentless than others, one can only surmise. But my fellow lawyers who are Wagnerians will take particular note of State v. Skinner, now on appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Vonte Skinner was convicted of attempted murder and other crimes, and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment, upon a jury finding that he had shot Lamont Peterson in the abdomen, chest, back and side of his head with a 9-millimeter pistol that was never recovered. Mr. Skinner admitted being present at the altercation but denied being the shooter. At the time of his arrest Mr. Skinner was driving his girlfriend’s Chevy Malibu, and in the back seat of that car police found lyrics to several rap songs that Mr. Skinner had penned.
At trial, those lyrics were read to the jury in order to prove that Mr. Skinner had the motive and intent to commit the crime. To make a fine point of it, the art was not introduced to respond to any defense put forward by Mr. Skinner, or to establish any fact relating to the crime, but rather to show that Mr. Skinner was the kind of guy who was capable of bad acts such as shooting Mr. Peterson.
Mr. Skinner’s art may appeal to narrow tastes. Among the selections read to the jury was:
Yo, look in my eyes. You see death comin’ quick. Look in my palms, you can see what I’m gunnin’ with. I play no games when it comes to this war shit. If death was a jacket, you would see how the floor fits. Crackin’ your chest when I show you how the floor spits, makin’ your mother wish she would have had an abortion.
The reading went on for pages – a reviewing court said that the passage quoted above constituted 3.5% of the lines read aloud to the jury — and it had quite an effect. The reviewing court observed that “the lengthy reading amounted to a prolonged and appalling assault on common sensibilities.” (Remember Hanslick’s report that listening to Tristan was like watching someone’s innards being slowly extracted from his body on a reel?) And, concluded the reviewing court, it had absolutely nothing to do with whether Mr. Skinner committed the crime. Mr. Skinner’s art was introduced for the sole purpose of prejudicing the defendant in the eyes of the jury.
It is an understatement to say that… a jury could infer that the author of these rap lyrics, defendant, was a bad person who not only believed in addressing people who crossed him by killing them but also had done that in the past as he so vividly describes in his lyrics.
Having held that the rap lyrics swayed the jury to find the defendant’s guilt while having no probative value, it held that they should have been excluded, and that a new trial was required. That finding is the one now on appeal to the State’s highest court.
But enough of the law. The question for Wagnerians boils down to this: Is it okay to be moved by art irrespective of the fact that it emanates from an artist one reviles? And if so, is it okay to have a benign – or even sympathetic — view of an artist whose art one reviles?