“Every time I change wives, I should burn the last one. That way I’d be rid of them. They wouldn’t be around to complicate my existence. Maybe, that would bring back my youth, too. You kill the woman and you wipe out the past she represents.”
I was 17 when I found out that my all-time favourite artist, Pablo Picasso, was a flagrant misogynist. The above words, a real quote coming from the great artist of the 20th century himself. When this side of the artist’s personality was revealed to me by my secondary school art teacher I was so taken aback. I wrestled with the conflict that was my love for his works and the horrendous words he had spoken about my gender in the past. Now, every time I look at ‘Les Demoiselles D’Avignon’, Picasso’s infamous painting of five prostitutes, I can’t help but think about what the interaction had been between Picasso and the women; was this a consensual and happy situation for the women? Or an encounter they were pressured or bullied into? ‘Les Demoiselles’, to me, was always such a visual treat. The figures composed of splintered geometric shapes, their haunting faces inspired by tribal African masks with eyes that watch you, daring you to watch them. I interpreted the piece as subverting the norm, the figures did not stand solely for the pleasure of the male gaze but to stand and gaze out from the frame themselves. Knowing what I do now of Picasso’s disposition towards women I can’t look at his works the same way, especially where women sitters are involved. A piece I once thought represented female empowerment with the women gazing from the frame with confidence more likely represents their suppression. Each stroke of paint now feels like a lie.
Picasso is no exception. Terrible people make beautiful art all the time. Michael Jackson is still renowned as one of the greatest musicians of all time, but it is alleged that he engaged in numerous counts of child sexual abuse. Harvey Weinstein is a very talented film producer but over 80 women have made allegations of sexual abuse against him. Roald Dahl was a known anti-Semite. George Orwell was homophobic. There’s a whole host of celebrities who have allegedly slept with underage girls, including David Bowie, Elvis Presley and R. Kelly.
Kobe Bryant, who tragically passed away in the last few weeks, was an exceptional athlete. But he was also a man accused of rape. Basketball was Bryant’s art. An artform he practiced with unparalleled skill. He was powerful and beloved, but potentially not a great guy. How are we supposed to commemorate problematic figures such as Bryant? Many have glossed over his rape case as a mere blip in his career, as something that impacted his public image and life far worse than his, (alleged), victim’s. The rape kit exam performed on the woman at the time documented her injuries as “inconsistent with consensual sex.” The case ended up being settled out of court as the media pressured the woman to drop out of the trial.
When someone dies, especially in such a horrific way, we also feel pressure to remain silent when it comes to their uglier actions. I like how reporter and survivor of sexual assault herself, Felicia Sonmez, put it in her controversial and since deleted tweet: “any public figure is worth remembering in their totality. Even if that figure is beloved and that totality upsetting.”
As much as we love their art, it’s important to acknowledge that some of our favourite artists are capable of ugly acts. But can we still enjoy art even if it is created by someone who has done bad things? Can we divorce art from the artist? And should we?
“I have assumed as axiomatic that a creation, a work of art, is autonomous” T.S Eliot once wrote.
To Eliot, once a poem was out in the open, it grew a mind and personality of its own, it was its own being now separate from him. Eliot felt he could no longer influence one of his poems once they were released. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Eliot’s idealism doesn’t really hold much water. It’s not up to the artist themselves whether their art stays separate from them. It’s up to us, the consumers. Whether or not we can consume a piece of art without thinking of the mind behind it may not even be something we can control. When we hear something troubling about an artist, sometimes we can’t help but let it influence our interpretation of their work. This is something fans of Chris Brown have struggled with when listening to his music in the aftermath of his assault on Rihanna. The same way House of Cards fans struggle to watch the show given what they know now about Kevin Spacey.
When thinking of whether or not we want to support a problematic artist there are so many different facets to take into consideration. For one, it matters whether or not the work itself reminds us of their odious acts. If a poet writes beautiful nature poems about flowers and trees, we are not likely to think of who they are as a person. If they are a racist, homophobe or criminal it wouldn’t bleed into their poetry and spoil our perception of it in the same way as if they wrote poems about their hatred of a certain group of people. Many of R. Kelly’s songs allude to a disrespect of women and the same could be said of Chris Brown. But we wouldn’t necessarily think of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein while watching ‘Pulp Fiction.’ It’s our intrusive thoughts that govern whether or not we can stomach continuing to consume these artists’ works.
We must be conscious of our role in this equation. To completely separate the art from the artist is to minimise our own role as consumers of the work and it’s our role that is paramount, not the artist’s. When you decide to consume or support work from an artist who has behaved badly, you’re communicating to the outside world that their behaviour is not that big of a deal. The decision whether or not to separate the art from the artist is an intrinsically personal one, influenced by a plethora of different things: the severity of the issues with the artist, whether or not other people were involved in the making of the art and whether they are dead or alive, to name but a few.
You can enjoy problematic art and artists. The real challenge lies with being honest with yourself about it and not defending or dismissing the problems at hand but addressing them head on. This is one of those dilemmas that will never be satisfactorily resolved but it is important to grapple with and discuss.
The world is not black or white. Everyone and everything lives in shades of grey and I encourage you to do what feels right. I still enjoy Picasso’s self-portraits and his ‘Guernica’, but I draw my line at financially supporting artists who are alive and the sole beneficiaries of my support.
Where do you draw yours?