Love the Art, Hate the Artist: How to Approach the Art of Disgraced Artists

Hate the sin, nev­er the sin­ner. — Clarence Dar­row

As a cul­ture, we’ve large­ly stepped away from the sen­ti­ment described by the famed lawyer’s 1924 defense of mur­der­ers Leopold and Loeb.

Apply it to one of the many male artists whose exalt­ed rep­u­ta­tions have been shat­tered by alle­ga­tions of sex­u­al impro­pri­ety and oth­er ruinous behav­iors and you won’t find your­self cel­e­brat­ed for your virtue in the court of pub­lic opin­ion.

But what of those artists’ cre­ative out­put?

Does that get bun­dled in with hat­ing both sin and sin­ner?

It’s a ques­tion that his­to­ri­an and for­mer cura­tor Sarah Urist Green is well equipped to tack­le.

Green’s PBS Dig­i­tal Stu­dios web series, The Art Assign­ment, explores art and art his­to­ry through the lens of the present.

In the episode titled Hate the Artist, Love the Art, above, Green takes a more tem­per­ate approach to the sub­ject than come­di­an Han­nah Gads­by, whose solo show, Nanette, includ­ed an incen­di­ary take­down of Picas­so:

I hate Picas­so. and you can’t make me like him. I know I should be more gen­er­ous about him too, because he suf­fered a men­tal ill­ness. But nobody knows that, because it doesn’t fit with his mythol­o­gy. Picas­so is sold to us as this pas­sion­ate, tor­ment­ed, genius, man-ball-sack. But Picas­so suf­fered the men­tal illness…of misog­y­ny.

Don’t believe me? He said, “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 fucked an under­age girl. That’s it for me, not inter­est­ed.

But Cubism! He made it! Marie-Thérèse Wal­ter, she was 17 when they met: under­age. Picas­so, he was 42, at the height of his career. Does it mat­ter? It actu­al­ly does mat­ter. But as Picas­so said, “It was perfect—I was in my prime, she was in her prime.” I prob­a­bly read that when I was 17. Do you know how grim that was?


A dif­fer­ent sort of grim than the hor­rors he depict­ed in Guer­ni­ca, still an incred­i­bly potent con­dem­na­tion of the human cost of war.

Should exemp­tions be made, then, for works of great genius or last­ing social import?

Up to you, says Green, advo­cat­ing that every view­er should pause to con­sid­er the rip­ples caused by their con­tin­ued embrace of a dis­graced artist.

But what if we don’t know that the artist’s been dis­graced?

That seems unlike­ly as cura­tors scram­ble to acknowl­edge the offender’s trans­gres­sions on gallery cards, and emer­gent artists attempt to set the record straight with response pieces dis­played in prox­im­i­ty.

Green notes that even with­out such overt cues, it’s very dif­fi­cult to get a “pure” read­ing of an estab­lished artist’s work.

Any­thing we may have gleaned about the artist’s per­son­al con­duct, whether good or ill, proven, unproven, or dis­proven, fac­tors into the way we expe­ri­ence that artist’s work. The source can be a paper of record, the Inter­net, a guest at a par­ty repeat­ing a per­son­al anec­dote…

It can also be painful to relin­quish our youth­ful favorites’ hold on us, espe­cial­ly when the attach­ment was formed of our own free will.

What would Han­nah Gads­by say to my reluc­tance to sev­er ties com­plete­ly with Gauguin’s Tahi­ti paint­ings, encoun­tered for the first time when I was approx­i­mate­ly the same age as the brown-skinned teenaged mus­es he paint­ed and took to bed?

The behav­ior that was once framed as evi­dence of an artis­tic spir­it that could not be fet­tered by soci­etal expec­ta­tions, seems beyond jus­ti­fi­ca­tion today. Still, it’s unlike­ly Gau­guin will be ban­ished from major col­lec­tions, or for that mat­ter, the his­to­ry of art, any time soon.

As Julia Halperin, exec­u­tive edi­tor of Art­net News observed short­ly after Nanette became a viral sen­sa­tion:

A Net­flix com­e­dy spe­cial is not going to com­pel muse­ums to throw out their Picas­sos. Nor should they! You can’t tell the sto­ry of 20th-cen­tu­ry art with­out him…. Although gloss­ing over, white­wash­ing, or shoe-horn­ing sto­ries of Picasso’s abuse into a com­fort­able nar­ra­tive about pas­sion­ate genius may be use­ful to main­tain his mar­ket val­ue and his bank­a­bil­i­ty as a tourist attrac­tion, it also does every­one a dis­ser­vice… we can under­stand Picasso’s con­tri­bu­tions bet­ter if we can hold these two seem­ing­ly incom­pat­i­ble truths in our minds at once. It’s not as uplift­ing as a straight­for­ward tale about a vision­ary cre­ative whose flaws were only in ser­vice to its genius. But it is more honest—and it might even help us under­stand the evo­lu­tion of our own cul­ture, and how we got to where we are today, a lot bet­ter.

Green pro­vides a list of ques­tions that can help indi­vid­ual view­ers who are reeval­u­at­ing the out­put of “prob­lem­at­ic” artists:

Is the work a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort?

Does the work reflect the val­ue sys­tem of the offend­er?

Are we to apply the same stan­dard to the work of sci­en­tists whose con­duct is sim­i­lar­ly offen­sive?

Who suf­fers when the offender’s work remains acces­si­ble?

Who suf­fers when the offender’s work is erased?

Who reaps the reward of our con­tin­ued atten­tion?

As Green points out, the shades of grey are many, though the choice of whether to enter­tain those shades varies from indi­vid­ual to indi­vid­ual.

Read­ers, where do you fall in this ever-evolv­ing debate. Is there an artist you have sworn off of, entire­ly or in part? Tell us who and why in the com­ments.

Watch more episodes of the Art Assign­ment here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Orwell Reviews Sal­vador Dali’s Auto­bi­og­ra­phy: “Dali is a Good Draughts­man and a Dis­gust­ing Human Being” (1944)

When The Sur­re­al­ists Expelled Sal­vador Dalí for “the Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian Fas­cism” (1934)

The Gestapo Points to Guer­ni­ca and Asks Picas­so, “Did You Do This?;” Picas­so Replies “No, You Did!”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 6 when her month­ly book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domaincel­e­brates Cape-Cod­di­ties (1920) by Roger Liv­ingston Scaife. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (11)
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  • Soonee says:

    This dilem­ma has inter­est­ed me for some time.
    Picas­so, Gau­g­in, Von Kara­jan, Goossens and on and on and on.
    Dis­play? Pur­chase? Admire?
    For me the sins of the artists taint their work.
    I can see the tal­ent and appeal of the art but I can’t seem to sep­a­rate the art from the artist.

  • PinballDestiny says:

    The idea that we dis­card art because we are upset with the per­son­al behav­ior of an artist is absurd. Tak­en to the log­i­cal extreme, would we dis­card archi­tec­tur­al fea­tures that were first designed by a misog­y­nist? Would we rebuild all of the arch­es on cer­tain build­ings to scrape the name from our path?

    Also, even more absurd is the notion that we do not con­sid­er the his­tor­i­cal con­text of soci­etal norms. Cer­tain­ly we can shake our heads in dis­be­lief that Picas­so lived up to the cur­rent day laws of New York but not Cal­i­for­nia, but it seems rea­son­able to note that it was not par­tic­u­lar­ly taboo at the time.

  • sfemet says:

    When mul­ti­ple alle­ga­tions sur­faced regard­ing Charles Dutoit, whose record­ing of “The Plan­ets” was my absolute favorite, I set myself the task of find­ing a replace­ment record­ing. The unex­pect­ed ben­e­fit was hear­ing this mas­ter­piece fil­tered through many dif­fer­ent con­duc­tors, allow­ing me to eval­u­ate it in new ways. While the result of the inves­ti­ga­tion into Dutoit’s behav­ior was “incon­clu­sive,” my inves­ti­ga­tion of music opened a whole new world of inter­pre­ta­tion.

    It’s much hard­er to find a replace­ment of a paint­ing, or a work of lit­er­a­ture. I try to under­stand these works by under­stand­ing the time in which they were cre­at­ed. I learn about the pol­i­tics, cul­ture, lit­er­a­ture and music of that time. Some­times I find anoth­er writer or painter whose tal­ent has gone unno­ticed or under appre­ci­at­ed. Oth­er times I just have to accept the fact that those artists not longer bring me joy and I move on.

  • Mimms says:

    This arti­cle is thin and could have gone much fur­ther in exam­i­na­tion of this sub­ject.

    I am always dis­mayed at the fact that so lit­tle atten­tion is paid to the fact that not only was sculp­tor, painter and engraver, Eric Gill a pae­dophile, but that he used his own daugh­ters (as well as his pets) to sat­is­fy his urges. His wife was so men­tal­ly pres­surised by him that she allowed him to exploit their daugh­ters — for the sake of his art.

    The Pre-Raphaelite broth­er­hood were pret­ty exploita­tive — And crit­ic and spon­sor, Ruskin was men­tal­ly deranged and made his wife suf­fer as a con­se­quence, until after some years she was able to form a rela­tion­ship with a more wor­thy man.

    Rodin treat­ed Camille abom­inably, quite pos­si­bly because of artis­tic jeal­ousy.

    The list goes on. This sub­ject deserves prop­er con­sid­er­a­tion.

  • Toni Hanner says:

    I have sworn off sev­er­al film­mak­ers and writ­ers, notably Woody Allen, Roman Polan­s­ki, Vladimir Nabokov. There’s no par­tic­u­lar log­ic to it, I’m strict­ly fol­low­ing my gut. I think I’m hard­er on men who are clos­er to the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion, because they have rea­son to know bet­ter.

  • John Conolley says:

    Artists learn to sep­a­rate their egos from the work. The work isn’t you, it’s just the work. Art appre­ci­a­tors can rea­son­ably sep­a­rate the work from the evil artist. Mar­i­on Zim­mer Bradley (who, inci­den­tal­ly, is _not_ male) has been believ­ably accused by her own chil­dren of hor­ri­ble child abuse. As an abused child myself, I hate her. But I’m nev­er giv­ing up _The Mists of Avalon_. Beau­ty _can_ come out of ugli­ness.

  • Marianne says:

    What’s miss­ing from your arti­cle is the notion that ideas about what is accept­able, accept­ed or sim­ply ignored changes over time. These days Picas­so would not get away with his ideas about and treat­ment of women as eas­i­ly as he did dur­ing his life­time. Times have change. Progress has been made thought we are not there yet. It’s no use try­ing to rewrite his­to­ry by today’s stan­dards, though. Bet­ter use your ener­gy to fight misog­y­ny as it still hap­pens cur­rent­ly.

  • Raissa Falgui says:

    Peo­ple are com­plex and not every aspect of a ter­ri­ble per­son is ugly. And some­times the art was pro­duced before the per­son became screwed up. I can still emjoy the art but I’d rather avoid enrich­ing the mak­er if Indis­ap­prove of him/her so I’ll bor­row or use a pirat­ed copy of works of artists I don’t care for as peo­ple.

  • Gabriel Rosenstock says:

    They say the dev­il has all the best tunes …

  • Alan Vanderslice says:

    Imag­ine if I chose to dis­count the soci­etal con­tri­bu­tions of every sin­gle com­menter in this thread based on the worst trans­gres­sion they ever made or inflam­ma­to­ry sen­tence they ever uttered. Would it be a fair mea­sure of their worth as a human being? We’re all fal­lable and imper­fect.

    Be care­ful how you wield the pow­er of judge­ment and use it respon­si­bly. Prac­tice for­give­ness and bask in the grey area of life. It’s where such var­ied and great cre­ations orig­i­nate from.

  • James says:

    Picas­so is hard­ly a ” dis­graced artist ” just because a few thumb suck­ers say so. His sta­tus in the art world is secure.

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