Is it Possible to Separate Art from the Artist? And Should We?

Can a misogynist, a racist, a rapist or a convicted criminal be a great artist? Can we value their work separately from our evaluation of the person behind the art? Should we support art done by people of low moral character?

When a friend challenged me to answer questions like these, I thought long and hard about the best way to answer. They’re appropriate questions, especially now. In the emergence of the Me Too movement, a number of public figures -who are also artists – have been revealed as having very questionable morals.

The White Horse by Paul Gauguin, 1898

I’ve stewed about this for a couple of days, and have realized that the question is just too big and broad for a short and simple answer. So, first let me start by saying that artists are no better or worse than others who live in the society they do. My guess is that that statistics would prove the proportion of good people and bad people in the art world in the same as in the rest of society. Second, it would be foolish to think that only people of good character can create good art. History is full great artists who had questionable morals. Charles McGrath, in his Globe and Mail article titled Good Art Bad People offers a long list of such artists including Picasso who was basically a bully, and Gauguin who had sexual relations with under-age girls. And yet I still love Gauguin’s’ work. Does that mean I support his behaviour? Absolutely not!

Maybe we’re confusing the meanings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when they refer to people and when they refer to art. People are judged according the moral standards of the society they live in. And, thankfully, societal standards evolve with time. As a woman, if I had been born 150 years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to make a living as an artist, although countless men certainly did. Today, we wouldn’t dream of this kind of discrimination against women, but for most of human history, women had no choice.

But art has no moral compass. A piece of art is either well done, or it is not. It either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. It either accomplishes its purpose – be it as entertainment, as social critic, or simply as a beautiful object. Or it does not. So the words good and bad are used to evaluate different things when you’re judging art or judging character.

And what about the link between the artwork and the artist who created it? I am an artist, and I have a personal perspective on that subject. To me, once the work is created and I have applied the final coat of varnish, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world. The world will value it, judge it and allow it to live or it will not. I am perfectly aware that most of my work will exist well past my expiration date. In that sense, the work matters more than the artist who created it. Think about it! When we travel and see all the incredible artwork around the world, we’re frequently unaware of who created it. Some of those artists’ names have long been forgotten, and some of them may have had questionable characters. But their art lives on and continues to enrich our lives.

Does this mean I could handle having one of Hitler’s watercolours in my house? No, I don’t think I could. But I could look at it in a museum and appreciate the technique – if it’s any good.  

As a society, I don’t think we should discard artwork created by bad people. We should provide context when we show the work, but we shouldn’t destroy it, ignore it, diminish its importance or hide it indefinitely in closets solely based on the character of the creator. The art should be considered based entirely on its artistic merit.

Yes, I realize that this opinion is harder to defend when it comes to living artists. Gauguin has been dead for 100 years and he’s not personally profiting from his artwork today. He gains nothing. But his art lives on. But art institutions are entangled with the society in which they exist. If they promoted the work of today’s sex offenders and racists, they’d risk offending their public audience. Thus, living artists who are exposed as morally corrupt run a serious risk of seeing their careers destroyed. They are just as vulnerable to societal censure as all their morally corrupt contemporaries. If their work is strong and relevant, however, it will outlive them.

I, personally, want to decide for myself what I support. And what I don’t support.  No one is forced to enter a gallery, to read a book or to watch a movie. All of us can make decisions as to whom we give our money when we select artwork. I’m not inclined to create financial benefit for people with questionable values, but I am opposed to ignoring art that has the potential over time to contribute to society and to nourish people’s minds and spirits.  

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3 thoughts on “Is it Possible to Separate Art from the Artist? And Should We?

  1. Sticky question. The problem with judging others especially from a long time ago is the moral standards shift and change. As a woman I am mightily grateful to be living now with automated washing machines (not that I do the laundry) and the freedom to be. Art is born out of our own experience. Positive or negative. We all have a choice to perpetuate one or the other. As we become a more loving society we may be able to include even those who hurt others. In fact we all hurt one another occasionally. Forgiveness is the key. I may be able to forgive the perpetrator without ever condoning his/her actions. It is a sticky business.

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