Anthony Burgess controversial but brilliant dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange was published in 1962, over sixty years ago, with Stanley Kubrick’s thoroughly engaging adaptation of it appearing in theaters nine years later. Yet, in a way both the book and the film continue to be highly relevant, but not necessarily for many of the same reasons which some people believe they are. Of course, people in contemporary society may believe that the film is highly relevant today due to the rise of gang culture in our inner cities or a culture which is now becoming increasingly sexualized and increasingly violent, yet these particular dynamics may not be what makes A Clockwork Orange still highly relevant so many years after both the book and film appeared on the scene.
The story involves the activities of a teenage boy (young man in the film) who pursues all manner of physically and sexually violent activities against others in the streets of London with his three accomplices (“droogs” as they are referred to) simply because he has a taste for what he calls “the old ultra-violence.” Yet, at the same time it is revealed that there is a higher purpose to his soul in his love of classical music, particularly Beethoven. Incidentally, this fusion of violent activities with exalted classical music in Kubrick’s film is nothing short of sheer genius.
What tends to make the story of Alex and his three droogs still so relevant is the idea, one which has now become a permanent part of contemporary cancel culture, that art and life are so intextricably intertwined that deficiencies found in one’s life must necessarily diminish either his/her art or even their appreciation of artistic genius. That is, should Woody Allen’s, Michael Jackson’s or Kevin Spacey’s brilliance relative to their directorial, musical, or acting skills be looked at in a diminished light due to possible complications with their personal lives, as difficult to swallow a those potential transgressions might be?
In Burgess’s novel and likewise in Kubrick’s film, young Alex is saved from having to serve increased prison time by being allowed to enter a program which physically conditions him to find violent acts repulsive by administering a drug that makes him violently nauseous as he simultaneously observes certain violent acts on a movie screen directly in front of him. Unfortunately, the soundtrack of one of the violent films which he is watching while becoming nauseous contains Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as part of the background score. Therefore, at the same time he is being conditioned to feel sick at the sight of violence, he is likewise being conditioned to feel sick whenever he hears Beethoven.
Metaphorically speaking, this would appear to be the same sort of conditioning which might be in the process of being applied to all of us amidst a culture, largely as a result of the Internet and social media, which now tends to so thoroughly conflate lifestyle choices with artistic brilliance. For example, numerous people no longer want to watch the film Midnight in Paris because of certain accusations which Woody Allen’s adopted daughter has made. Likewise, certain people no longer want to listen Michael Jackson’s music or watch his videos due to similar accusations which have been made against him.
It is admittedly a difficult question; whether the enjoyment of someone’s artistic genius should necessarily be abrogated due to accusations which have been made against them in their personal life. Similar to the scene in A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex is being simultaneously conditioned to loathe both violent acts and the music of Beethoven which he once loved, we have to decide whether we can potentially separate certain accusations which have been made against a certain artistic genius from the brilliance of the art they have produced. If not, there would appear to be the potential danger that the quality of certain art forms may at last become entirely subjective.