The Art Assignment

S4 E20 | FULL EPISODE

Love the Art, Hate the Artist

Can you separate the art from the artist? This one's in honor of all the art you used to love, and it's creators who ruined it by behaving badly. We talk Picasso, Nanette, cats out of bags, and much more

AIRED: September 20, 2018 | 0:10:13
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TRANSCRIPT

[ELECTRONIC MUSIC]

We've all been there, scrolling

through our daily feed, only to discover

that yet another person whose work we've at some point

appreciated has said terrible things

or committed odious acts.

Artists and art professionals have certainly been among them.

And the dead are not immune to our judgment,

as Hannah Gadsby demonstrates so well

in her epic takedown of Pablo Picasso

in her Netflix special "Nanette."

He said, "Each time, each time I leave a woman,

I should burn her.

Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents."

Cool guy.

The greatest artist of the 20th century.

Picasso's mistreatment of women and flagrant misogyny

has been no secret to anyone who has studied his work or read

anything about his life.

But where does that leave us with his actual art?

What do we do when we encounter it in a book or a museum?

Can we divorce the art from the artist, and should we?

On one of my first trips to New York as a high school student,

I saw a show at the Museum of Modern Art of work

by the artist Chuck Close.

It blew me away.

His enormous portraits were not only

astounding to me technically and optically, but also left me

in this strange but enjoyable head space of being intimately

close in proximity to a person without actually

knowing anything about them.

This uncanny feeling of simultaneous nearness

and distance feels even more pronounced to me

when his subjects are famous people.

When I read the recent accounts of a number of women

who had humiliating experiences in his studio,

I was bummed out.

I felt badly for the women to whom

it had happened and also disappointed,

because I knew I'd never look at one

of his pictures the same way again.

No criminal allegations were brought.

And he apologized.

And you can read all about it yourself.

But now, when I look at one of his works,

I think about what the interaction

might have been between the artist and the sitter.

Was this a friend and the process a happy, consensual

one, or an awkward or strained situation

where the sitter was too embarrassed to object or leave?

Why are some sitters asked to pose nude and others clothed?

Which ones are paid models, and which ones are not?

I still marvel at the technical mastery in front of me,

but now I'm also more aware, not only

of the artist's act of looking in making the picture,

but also my own role as an observer of whatever

is and was happening.

Our reading of an artwork is always

affected by the information we have or don't have about it.

Sometimes we have a choice in the matter,

like whether we read an object label in a museum

or read articles or books about an exhibition or artist.

If you don't have that information,

you have a greater chance of a pure reading of it.

But other times, we don't choose what we learn.

Maybe a friend had a bad run-in with the artist,

or you hear something anecdotally,

or a story breaks and you happen to see it in your feed.

This works both ways, by the way.

More information can have a positive impact on an artwork

as well.

Maybe you read an interview with an artist who's really rad,

and the next time you see their work,

you like it more because of it.

Maybe when you took that art class to fulfill that credit,

you happened to learn about the amazing work of Leonora

Carrington.

And so the next time you come across it,

you're more inclined to like it and give it more attention.

Earlier this year, when allegations

of inappropriate sexual behavior were

swirling around photographer Nicholas Nixon,

he asked that the ICA Boston take down

their exhibition of his work early, stating,

"I believe it's impossible for these photographs

to be viewed on their own merits any longer."

Now art is almost never viewed purely on its own merit.

There are often cues that tell us something

is important or unimportant.

But I think Nixon was right.

It would have been difficult for the art-going public in Boston

to appreciate his pictures in the same way

that they might have a few months before.

I've long adored his series of photographs

of his wife and her three sisters,

taken once annually since 1975.

There are so many things to appreciate

as you watch these sisters develop and evolve.

The photographer's presence is only

occasionally visible in a shadow,

but is always palpable in the extreme intimacy

and comfort that feels apparent between Nixon and his subjects.

It's up to me now whether or how I reconcile my knowledge

of the artist with his work.

And my reading of his work has and will

continue to change over time by forces

within and outside of my control.

Because it also matters how much the work

itself reminds you of the odious acts, right?

Like, it's pretty easy to see misogyny

in some of Picasso's works and less so in others.

When I look at a Carl Andre sculpture,

I'm not immediately compelled to think

about who he is as a person.

But it's impossible not to think about when

looking at a painting of nude Tahitian girls

by an artist who we know married three different Tahitian

girls, ages 13, 14, and 14, and infected them with syphilis.

And I would definitely start to think about it if he was still

alive and I was to, say, consider purchasing his work.

Because part of this equation is considering

who reaps the financial rewards of our attention, right?

When another YouTuber does something stupid

and everyone gets upset about it,

do I want to go watch the offending video?

Heck yes.

But do I?

Heck no.

I can't bear to think I'll be a single digit in that view count

or contribute financially in any way

to that person and their fame.

Our attention matters.

And it's also being closely monitored,

amounting to ad dollars and influencing boardroom decisions

about what kind of stuff gets made.

Even if the artist is long gone and profits

little from our attention, we still

send a message to the powers that

be that we're willing to look at and appreciate work by artists

who behave in certain ways.

We communicate more broadly to everyone

around us that it's OK if you're a jerk.

If you make good stuff, we'll consume it.

So even if the past is past--

which it never is--

we're affecting what gets seen today and in the future.

So what do we do?

There's always the old asterisk approach,

where you talk about the good stuff,

but are sure to mention the bad stuff, too.

Art museums tend to do this awkwardly and inconsistently.

And I don't envy their conundrum.

Another approach is to reclaim the work in some way,

like Amber Ruffin's hilarious proposal on "Late

Night with Seth Meyers," making guilt-free alternatives to art

created by problematic men.

Hang it in your house.

And when people are like, "Ooh, is that a Picasso?",

say, "No, it was made by someone who respects women."

Or you can think of Jewish conductor Daniel

Barenboim's as hugely contentious decision to perform

the work of Richard Wagner, known anti-Semite

and influencer of Hitler, at a concert in Israel.

I don't think there should be some giant reckoning where

we unearth buried wrongdoings and purge our museums

and art history books of any artist who's

ever done something offensive.

Our museums are the holders of our histories

and should express the good with the bad.

But when someone comes forward attesting to wrongdoings,

or when, in the course of research, they're uncovered,

there's no putting the cat back in the bag.

People have a right to share their stories.

And we have a right to hear the stories they want to share.

And then it's on us to weigh that knowledge

with the work in question and make our own decisions

about how and whether we let it affect our actions.

Each case is different, and there

are so many different facets to take into account.

Aside from the nature of the offense and however seriously

you take it is the work of collaborative effort, where

the offending party is just one contributor out of many.

Does the work not only remind you of the offense,

but in any way reflect or promote

the value system of the offender?

Can we excuse a sexist, anti-Semitic scientist

for their discoveries, but not an artist

whose work is perceived as less measurably

transformative in the world?

Who suffers when the offender's work remains accessible?

And conversely, who suffers when their work is no longer

part of our cultural heritage?

Look, you can make quality art and do bad things

but you should know that there will be consequences when

those bad things are revealed and that you'll

lose the privilege of a less clouded reading of your work

when that happens.

The cat will never go back in the bag.

You can try to get rid of it, get it spayed

or neutered so that it doesn't make more cats like it.

Or you can come to terms with the cat, try to reform it,

or accept it for the compromised companionship it can offer.

OK.

No more cat metaphor, I promise.

But realize that it is a choice that you're making.

We all play our part in the celebrity-worshipping culture

that we're mired in and which has made it increasingly

difficult for any of us to seriously consider separating

the artist from the art.

We are complicit with everything we click on and buy and watch.

Artists, like all people, are complicated creatures.

And because most of them aren't irreconcilably awful,

the more you learn about a person,

the more tangled and less black and white of a picture

you'll likely get.

But to try to completely separate

the art from the artist is to minimize your own role

as reader of the work.

It's not that the artist's role is paramount,

but that your role is.

I still like Picasso's "Guernica"

and Nicholas Nixon's photographs and the amazing mosaic

portraits by Chuck Close in the 86th Street subway

station in New York, although I do

wish he decided not to include two self-portraits.

But I don't worship their creators or labor

under the delusion that good art comes

at the expense of being a decent person.

And most of all, I realize that these situations are usually

very nuanced and that each of us is

entitled to draw our own lines.

But if we care about what kind of creative work

gets made and offered to us in the future,

we've got to be intentional about what we see and consume

and either actively or passively support.

If you'd like to support what we're doing over here at "The

Art Assignment," consider donating a little each month

at patreon.com/artassignment.

Special thanks to our grandmasters

of the arts, Vincent Apa and Indianapolis Homes Realty.

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