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
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."
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
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
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?
But do I?
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.
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
Special thanks to our grandmasters
of the arts, Vincent Apa and Indianapolis Homes Realty.