Compelling Art, Problematic Artist

On Feb. 21, members of the art faculty hosted a conversation piece titled “Compelling Art; Problematic Artist.” Structured as a round table discussion, the event sought to weigh the value of a piece of artwork against the character of the artist.

In light of the #MeToo movement, such a conversation is pertinent to the output of many artists we consider ourselves consumers of. Indictments of the characters of artists on account of various forms of abuse have left many of us asking: Is it still okay to consume their artistic output? What does it say about me if I do? How should we treat their art going forward?

One artist in particular was a central talking point: Pablo Picasso. Associate Professor of Art History Elizabeth Carlson provoked discussion by opening the event with a clip from comedian Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” in which Gadsby drew upon her background in art history to decry the idolization of Picasso in the field despite his history of misogyny.

Gadsby criticized the notion that Picasso is somehow vindicated from his character flaws on account of his genius. This became an important point in the discussion: that we often extend forgiveness to “unstable” geniuses, especially men. One participant said, “Famous people often get the emboldening message that even if they do something problematic, they can still get work.”

While excusing problematic artists was not the point of the discussion, certain time was devoted to apparent vindications of artists. For the sake of playing devil’s advocate, one point made was that misogyny was simply the zeitgeist of Picasso’s time. Is it really so much him specifically at fault, or society collectively?

Also, Professor Carlson noted that in her studies of artist biographies, it is difficult to find an artist who doesn’t have something problematic about them. Is it really practical, then, to limit our consumption of art only to artists who we have confirmed have clean records? The inevitability of something problematic is especially prominent in historical contexts. For example, Assistant Professor of Art History Nancy Lin noted that the Chinese emperor who commissioned the Terracotta Army probably had a death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

What reasons might we have for continuing to consume this kind of art? One participant noted that “since Picasso is so central to the canon, people have been conditioned to expect Picasso, and so educators keep giving them what they want.”  Another participant took this in the opposite way: “If everyone knows Picasso, isn’t that all the more of a reason not to include him? The point of education is to show people things they don’t know.”

Professor Carlson did not entirely agree with this claim, saying “Research shows and my experience confirms that people learn best when you pick them up starting at things they know.”

A few different approaches to mitigating harm caused by a problematic artist were brought up. One participant suggested placing plaques next to their pieces in museums, with a disclaimer explaining the content of their character. Another participant questioned the efficacy of this approach, saying “In that case, you are placing a lot of trust in curators to have morals that line up with yours.”

What do we make of the most intuitive approach to such mitigation: simply removing troubling pieces from galleries and teaching spaces? One participant considered the possibility of this doing more harm than good. “A banned artist may create more of a buzz, causing their art to reach an even greater audience,” they said. Another participant, however, offered a compelling argument for this approach. “When we are talking about our own tastes, there is infinite space for art in our minds, so we aren’t doing any harm by giving it a place there,” they said. “But, in a museum, there is limited physical space in the galleries. When we place problematic art there, we are saying it takes priority over other art in the competition for space.”

Furthermore, certain art is historically important despite the flaws of its creator. One participant said, “Even if art contains imagery that suggests the artist was a bad performance, it may depict important elements of history. If we ban it, we don’t get the full historical context.”

Taking all these things into account, are we allowed to just “not care” that an artist had a deeply flawed character? One participant said that phrasing your approach this way “demonstrates an unwillingness to dig into what the artist has done.” However, this does not imply that we should shut out any and all art that falls into this category. A participant summed this up by saying “We have good in the bad, and bad in the good. If you censor art, you stop people from productively understanding the story behind it and what the artist did.”