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?

Grim.

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 Gaugin’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 Gaugin 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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  • 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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