Love the Art, Hate the Artist


[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. [UPBEAT MUSIC]

8 comments

  • Jesse Garza

    d r o n e

    Reply
  • Allen Freeman

    Excellent video. I was at The Broad in LA last year and got to see a Chuck Close and it is amazing work. I was back there yesterday (09/12/2019) and it was not there. A lot of the gallery was unchanged. I have not done the research as to why its not apart of that gallery anymore.

    Reply
  • Allen Freeman

    I went to a comic convention in 1985 and 2 artists I admired were there. I arrived late and they had finished their talk and were leaving the stage. I asked one (only I was walking up to him) if he could sign a couple comics for me, and he waved me off saying maybe tomorrow. I explained I’d not be there tomorrow. He just walked away. The other artist (who later became way more famous) said sure. Sat on the edge of the stage and signed about 5 things I had. To this day I avoid work from the first artist and am gravitated to art/movies from the second one. I can’t seem to change this.

    Reply
  • domino2515

    5:06 taking shots at pewdiepie I see lol

    Reply
  • GlassMom Intergadgetary

    Everything under the sun is a mix. Nothing is perfectly pure. All that does is charge us with our own magnum opus of an ethical life.,to make this moment in front of us a kind one, over and over and over again. Ethics is nearly impossible to quantify (like money was an effort at it, but well….) So, it has to be art.

    Ethics is Art is Life.

    No I did not get that from a Dr. Bronner's bottle…. Om anyway.

    Reply
  • Leopard-King

    Human love is a nerve ending pinched by reputation. It only achieves magnificence in flashes of brilliance for a choice cause and time. No sooner is returned the to dim overcast of convenience. This is the undying grey skyline of our compassion, the baseline of our charity. A greater love would forbid the sale of canaries to coal miners. Yet this casual business is practiced routinely in my pet store as well as yours. Our minimum requirement for love registers at the shallow depth of preservation; a pure survival of flesh and perception. We secretly covet things that ale stranger. If the peanut does not take my breath away, why should cast it behind me or call it by an evil name? Neither does this love faint over a raised draw bridge. Is not the moat that separates us called justice? My feet are found within the fortress and so my cleanliness follows. I often find the malice we suffer is simply a weapon too fragile to breach our armor. I declare the innocence of an arrow and the blood guiltiness of a battle ax. Don't put it past me to craft a poetic defense of Pablo Picasso. How easy would it be to sell Picasso's destruction as a metaphorical reset of gender expectations? This is the luxury of my male armor. His arrow tempts my innocent verdict.

    Reply
  • John Blyth - Composer, writer

    Sometimes an artist more in touch with his or her evil elements has very valuable things to say just because of that. I’m sure that’s far from always true, but art—produced or consumed— is often how we deal with things too hard to bear directly—symbolically—including the darkness in each of us. Again, not in every case, and different people have different uses for the art in their lives. The more pressing problem about problematic art seems to me to be how we are seen by others to align with not only the things we profess to value, but how we are perceived by other to tacitly approve of the transgressive creators themselves: it’s at its heart a social conundrum.

    Reply
  • the fxbip

    If you're gonna discard Picasso work because he was a sinner you may as well burn at least half the art in museums and half the books in libraries.Cause, surprise, surprise : artist are not saints. Art never pretended to the world to be the vessel of moral standard…and i think its really silly to act like it is. Art is often born in people with great emotional,moral and mental tensions. The great thing about Art is that it might the only thing that is open to ALL human beings. Good people, bad people. It includes everyone. Including assholes and, yes, also criminals. The composer Gesualdo and the painter Caravaggio were murderers and also geniuses. I repeat Art is not the vessel for moral standard. It is the expression of everything that is in this life, the expression of very diverse humans beings with very different lives stories, characters, morality standards and on the whole very different fates. To rule out sinners out of Art would be ruling out the imperfect humanity out of Art.Artists are only humans and their lives, as everyone lives by the way, is not simply black or white. Art touches us because of it's great beauty, but it touches us too because of this bare and raw humanity in all its defects and imperfections.

    Reply

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