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]

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