B2 – Separating the art from the artist (guided reading)

Recently the whole world united, as we all witnessed twists and turns in the biggest trial of the 21st century between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Even though there was one clear (public) winner of this case, I can’t help but feel rather disappointed that such a great actor had so many skeletons in his closet. It made me wonder – will I ever be able to truly enjoy Johnny Depp’s movies again?

As a material creator and a teacher, you often need to search for relevant and topical articles that are interesting for your students. The trial brought millions of people in front of the screens, streaming hours of court footage and becoming interested in law vocabulary. There are many different angles from which you can approach this topic. From the strict vocabulary side, perfect use of question tags (You didn’t expect Kate Moss to testify, did you?) or talking about more serious topics such as domestic violence.

Initially, I was planning on talking about the MSNBC article The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, America has lost, which poses a serious question – Why were we invested in the trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard? It also deals with the consequences and the impact it may have on domestic violence victims who may be too afraid to come forward and talk about their experiences. I started digging and thinking about it more and eventually, I landed on The New York Times article Can We Separate the Art from the Artist by Jennifer Finney Boylan.

This time, instead of a lesson plan, I prepared a short presentation that can be used as a part of guided reading and a full-class discussion. Since we are heading towards the end of the academic year, lessons get a bit lighter, so it may be a nice way of finishing with a conversation about our favourite films, songs and TV shows that include a list of problematic people. Head to the end of the post to download the presentation.

Start the discussion by listening to American Pie by Don McLean. Ask what kind of emotions the song brings and if you enjoy it. It’s an old classic, so it may not be approved by the younger generations, but they may be familiar with its cover by Madonna. Proceed by reading the first part of the article, discuss how the author of the article feels when she hears this song and compare it with Don McLean’s ex-wife’s feelings. Which feelings are closer to your students’ emotions and why? Talk about the effects music has on us. Discuss if you have any songs that make you involuntarily happy or sad.

At this point, you may want to deal with some of the law jargon such as plea agreement, to plead or criminal mischief. Proceed by talking about the guilt of Don McLean and the plea deal that he accepted. Discuss who the students believe more in this situation, Don or his ex-wife. Despite their opinions on the artist, talk if his music should be banned from the radio or if it should be celebrated.

Show a list of different movies, TV shows and songs that all feature problematic artists, such as Charlie Sheen, Roman Polanski or Michael Jackson. Discuss if students still enjoy these pieces of art, or if they sabotaged them once they found out about the crimes of the artists. Go over each person and the gravity of their offences. Make sure to go over the allegations of Gary Glitter and his song which was used recently in the infamous Joker stairs scene, as mentioned in the other part of the article.

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The next part talks about the seriousness of crimes and if they should be a deciding factor in cancelling the art of problematic artists. You can also think about the old crimes and if our perspective on them changes with time. Is it possible that some of the criminal offences can expire and shouldn’t enter the equation? Shift the conversation into removing certain pieces of art and not others and the requirements they need to meet to completely erase a song or a movie. Come back to the part about American Pie and think if this song deserves to be preserved in the National Recording Registry.

Focus on the Rolling Stones’s song Brown Sugar. Analyse the lyrics and the meaning behind them. Discuss if the students can see why the lyrics were seen as controversial and racist. Follow up by reading about the removal of the song from the tour and if it was a good decision to make. Is it possible that some art may change its meaning over time?

Finish this discussion by talking about our feelings towards the art coming from the damaged artists. Discuss the author’s feelings about it and compare them with your students’ feelings. Did this class change their mind about some of the artists? Will they reconsider listening to songs and watching movies of artists who were accused of certain offences? If you want to make it a bit more topical, you can also bring Johnny Depp into the mix and think if you will watch his movies and support his future endeavours.

Click the link to my Canva project if you are interested in the presentation, but would like to adapt it to your needs. If you like what you see, click the link below to get the PDF version of the guided reading presentation.

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