The singer P J Proby maintained as an artist he was exempt from shit.

Faulkner was more elegant but said essentially the same thing—believing a writer's only responsibility was to their art. He remarked if a writer had to rob his mother to further his art, he would not hesitate, pointing out the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies. Woody Allen’s script for Stardust Memories created a context in which to view the contribution artists make to society: "…you're also not Superman; you're a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes."

In the past, society agreed. As long as the jokes were funny, we turned a blind eye to the somewhat excessive lifestyles enjoyed by artists or their opinions which might be considered offensive if uttered by other people. After all, art lends itself to extremes.

Lately, however, the situation has changed. We have been reminded that "we’re all in this together" and artists are no exception to this rule. The mood is less indulgent and more judgemental even censorious with non-artists or those not directly involved in the artistic process willing to challenge the sense of exemption. Artists now seem to be expected to take a more responsible attitude or at least be wary of causing offence by making provocative statements. The Old Vic has just decided not to go ahead with a production of Into the Woods, due to concerns about previous remarks made by director Terry Gilliam about the #MeToo movement, diversity and trans rights.

This illustrates the possible consequences of the new approach for the arts rather than wider society—Into the Woods will not go ahead; at least in the short term. Eventually, artists may learn to toe the line and avoid causing offence and society as a whole will be happier. If, however, instead of looking forward to a brave new world, we look backwards, it is possible to identify costs as well as benefits at least for the arts. If Elvis Costello had been ‘cancelled’ after his drunken rant about Ray Charles, we would have lost out on the sublime "Shipbuilding".

I am entirely selfish in this debate. Having no artistic ability, am dependent upon more talented individuals to satisfy my need for entertainment or occasionally enlightenment. If this means having to look the other way when artists make fools of themselves then that is acceptable to me. If someone is really offensive, I have the option to withdraw my custom; but that decision is much more dependent upon the quality of the work than the opinions of the artist. I didn’t buy Van Morrison’s new album because it was hardly his best work, not because he made some dumb remarks about the COVID crisis. Had there been a "Madame George" on the album, it would have been a different story.

Few people are wholly admirable; artists may be awful people while still producing great works. Keith Richards adored the work of Chuck Berry whilst acknowledging he could not warm to him as a person if they were cremated together. Ed Sheeran seems a nice bloke but is unlikely to ever write a song of equal calibre to, say, "No Particular Place To Go".

There is the also the possibility artists may contribute to nudging society in a positive direction by maintaining lifestyles which are not in accord with the norm. Joe Orton, hardly a model of restraint, was in a gay relationship while homosexuality was still illegal in the UK.

The situation is complex and getting more so. Artists are now censoring themselves or apologising for past actions before they are held to account. The Rolling Stones have dropped "Brown Sugar" from their live set. Imitating the Dog’s adaptation of Conard’s Heart of Darkness was interrupted by the company breaking off to discuss their concerns about staging a book so closely linked to colonisation. Manchester’s Royal Exchange seems to be going through an identity crisis having decided the building in which the venue is based is offensive due to historic links to the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its architecture being perceived as elitist and imperialist. One worries the forthcoming new season at the venue may amount to a year-long navel-gazing mea culpa.

Producers have always had to adapt to changing sensitivities. An Agatha Christie story with a title from an old children’s rhyme has had to be re-titled to avoid causing offence. It will be interesting to see how a forthcoming stage adaptation of the film Fatal Attraction is staged. The ending of the film was altered to a more formulaic conclusion which basically let the male character off the hook. The revised version—which had cinema audiences back in the day baying misogynistic comments at the climax—may not play so well nowadays.

Reviewers are not immune to being judgmental; recently I objected to swearing in a Shakespearian production not because of the profanity but due to being a purist and opposing anyone changing The Bard’s text. I also saw a very good fringe play in which the author used recent past events—specifically the Vietnam war—to illustrate how an apparently admirable character could be driven to extreme actions. Other reviewers seemed to think the description of the events amounted to an endorsement. One hopes writers are not going to have to preface their works advising they do not necessarily approve events depicted therein.

Society is moving away from generally held codes of behaviour which were clearly understood towards subjective standards which are important to some groups and less so to others. At present, one might think it safe to assume everyone agrees environmental issues are of universal concern. Yet it is probable if producers go ahead with shows offering a platform to environmentalists, other interest groups will demand parity.

The move towards a more socially responsible arts is, for me, coming at a bad time. Prior to the pandemic, I felt obliged to offer support for the arts and would go to shows which seemed worthy but dull out of a sense of obligation. Having had months in which to rediscover the pleasures of staying at home re-reading books or comics or listening to old records, am now more inclined to ask if I really want to make an effort, leave the house to go and be lectured. Being cowardly by nature, have a nasty feeling if a full conflict breaks out about the need for artists to be more careful and socially responsible, I might abstain and just stay home. Can’t help but wonder if I will be the only one.