Beautiful Creatures, Ugly Temperaments: Michael Gira, Larkin Grimm, and the Limits of Accountability

AUTHORS NOTE, ACKNOWLEDGEMENT & EDIT (PLEASE READ): After further review of the evidence provided by other sources, and independent research, I have come to learn that Michael Gira did NOT sexually assault Larkin Grimm. While the content of this piece has subsequently changed in light of additional information (Found here , and here among other sources) My original argument and thesis on how we discuss rape, and holding rapists accountable, has not; therefore, I will not change any of the content of this post directly, but leave this note here, to clarify that, at least with regards to Michael Gira himself, my opinion has changed. 

Aristotle was a gay-pedophile; Edgar Allen Poe married his teenage cousin; John Lennon psychologically abused, neglected, and disowned his first family; Led Zeppelin are a collective group of giant litigious dick-monsters;and Two of the most important films in the history of film-making were made in support of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Nazis.

And Michael Gira raped Larkin Grimm.

Can I enjoy the art of these individuals? Can I support art when the persons who made it committed actions to which I am vocally and actively opposed? At what point do I separate art from artists?

When I had heard that Brock Turner, a formerly promising swimmer had raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and was only given 6 months; and then I read the woman’s own testimony to the atrocities she experienced not only from him, but pretty much everyone else, I was upset, and wanted justice, like everybody else. Brock Turner has been served as much by the court of public opinion as by the legal system; and for all intents and purposes, he is ruined. I’m fine with that.

Mugshot, Public Record
Mugshot, Public Record

Then The Glowing Man by Swans came out, and I had to question that impulse.

For the vast majority of readers who are likely unfamiliar, Swans is an experimental post-punk group, headed by Michael Gira who have been active since the 80’s. Their music is challenging, abusive, and patient; they are also one of my favorite bands, with one of my favorite discographies, and pretty much everything they’ve released I’ve adored in some capacity.

I intend to review The Glowing Man, their 14th release, in the near future, and – spoiler alert – my opinion will be positive. In fact, it will be my album of the year, almost without question.

Normally, this would not be a problem, for most people; and, at least musically, it’s not for me: this is an album I thoroughly enjoyed.

But if you don’t know who Swans are, you are less likely to know that Michael Gira – the mind behind the group – was accused this February of sexually assaulting underground musician Larkin Grimm, an artist formerly on his label, who was then dropped, not long after the incident in question occurred. Although Gira was, at first, angry at the accusation, he then admitted publicly that he had engaged in some sexual contact with Grimm while they were inebriated. He then proceeded to explain that he told his family about the regrettable incident, and that he was truly sorry about the whole ordeal, not only for his failings, but for how it played out.

I respect the hell out of that response. But That’s rape. It sucks. I hate that fact. And I’m ashamed of how I reacted.

Photo By Young God Records
Photo By Young God Records

In February, while I waited excitedly for this album, my first response was denial. From everything I’ve seen – and heard – of Gira, he’s a genuinely decent – if caustic – guy, who makes compelling music. I still remember debating the issue with another friend, who was so disgusted with Gira’s behavior that he has fore-sworn Swans music altogether due to the hypocrisy of the lyricism. I get that.

But I couldn’t quite do that myself. In fact, I was just as excited for the new release as I ever was. Worse, I wanted to give Gira the benefit of the doubt on this one. After reviewing all of the evidence that is publicly available: Larkin Grimm’s history, Michael Gira’s history,  testimony from band mates of Grimm – and even Gira’s wife Jennifer supporting her husband, it would be easy for me to take Gira’s side on this one and just say it was a mistake on his part.

Larkin Grimm, courtesy of KNOMIA
Larkin Grimm, courtesy of KNOMIA

Then a letter justifying Brock Turner’s behavior by his father came out.

I believe wholeheartedly in the ideas of shades of grey, especially with regards to morality. For me, the most dangerous idea is not any one idea, but the assumption that one idea is categorically right: inflexibility is the bread of extremism; and extremists are not exclusive to any single group. This is one of the reasons I struggled to say, categorically that what Gira did is rape. There is no room for moral shading with such strict terms and limits. That drives me fucking insane. Worse, it creates – to my mind – a false equivalence between all rapists. There are always degrees.

So for me to say that what Gira and Turner did are equivalent acts is counter to my own philosophy. If I had it my way, I’d be able to give Gira more of the benefit of the doubt than Turner, and appreciate him as a man, and his contributions to underground music.

But if I did that, then I would disregard the series of problems that currently surround sexual assault.

First, Larkin Grimm was raped, she suffered psychological duress, and she was traumatized by it. I don’t need to re-iterate tired statistics of 1 in 4 being sexually assaulted; nor do I need to re-iterate that many do not come out about it. But for the purposes of this piece, I will.

Women – and men – will fail to report their rape because frequently, the rapist will be given the benefit of the doubt. Their art, their prestige, their own lives will be given greater weight than the person who has suffered as a result of their shitty behavior. If I give Gira a pass, I perpetuate that.

Moreover, we live in a male dominated culture; there is a power imbalance. Aside from Gira’s considerable power and weight in the underground music scene, he holds even more power simply by being the man in this instance. Even if he has admitted to his actions, and done his due diligence – is properly chagrined – he still won’t feel the brunt of this decision as powerfully as Larkin Grimm will and does. If I give Gira a pass, I perpetuate that.

Third, the ability to recognize rape as such is half-baked at best; actively hated at worst; and currently lacking in pop culture. Although I take issue with making inebriation = non-consent, because it’s an extreme notion, the fact that people are willing to overlook the victims of rape so easily, compels me to take a harder line. Especially as an avowed feminist, and advocate for consent. My love for nuance is overpowered by my love of people.

And I still haven’t answered my own question: can I enjoy the art of someone who commits horrible acts? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Part of me screams yes: so many people throughout history who have not only created great art, but done great things, and stood for great movements, have done unspeakably shitty things. Everything from Incest to Murder. Life is a series of moral compromises, and no one gets out of that; even Gandhi made morally questionable decisions in his life, and that guy is best known by his honorific “Mahatma” (Great Soul). If the limits of my ability to enjoy art were “Did they do something morally objectionable?” I would not be able to listen, read, or otherwise indulge in virtually anything.

But if I say yes, and I don’t acknowledge the shitty things, I tacitly endorse that behavior. If I don’t hold myself – or these artists – accountable for their actions, then I do nothing to prevent others from mimicking their behavior. If I take a stand against rape, and then don’t call out a rapist, I’m not standing against rape. It fucks me up to think in that way, and to think that.

And it’s even harder, because I find art to be so fundamentally of the self, that to separate art from artist is tantamount to lying, in my eyes. Even worse than that, art, when used in a specific context, can be a great voice for change, and can compel others to act meaningfully, independent of the artists ideas.

Hardest of all, I still like the art, and I still think its important, and justifiable as art. So where, in this struggle, do I stand, at the end of the day? Is it OK to enjoy this album, and still hold Gira accountable?

I say yes, and no. I don’t think Gira is a terrible person, he did a terrible thing, but he is not evil to the bone. I also enjoy the hell out of The Glowing Man, and that’s not going to stop. But he raped someone, and even if it isn’t to the measure of horror that Brock Turner inflicted, I cannot, in good conscience, overlook it either.

As someone who loves knowledge, who loves Nuance, who values the concept of moral grey, and has made plenty of stupid mistakes, I am incapable of giving a categorical answer on this, or depriving myself of knowledge. Perhaps that’s a little selfish.

But knowledge and empathy gave me the understanding to not condone Michael Gira’s actions, and still love Swans – and to the extent that I am able – Gira himself

The Glowing Man is a great album, Swans is a great band, and Michael Gira raped Larkin Grimm.

And that’s the best I can do.

Until I find a better way,

Peace.

 

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