When Art Gives You Lemons…

How do you separate the art from the artist? Should you separate the art from the artist? Should we throw away good art because the artist is or was a terrible person? Those are questions that have been going around in my head long before recent events. Heck, they’re questions that have been with me at least since I read a biography of Picasso in my early teens, and they’re questions people might have been wrestling with at least as long as there have been artists. Even though the celebrity has been magnified by technology there’s a long history of artists behaving badly. Caravaggio literally got away with murder, and if you want to go back even farther Sophocles was accused of immoral behavior. So was Socrates, leading to his famous last words, “I drank what?” but that’s another story, and anyway, he’s a philosopher, not an artist.

In spite of years of discussion, reading, thinking, cogitating, ruminating, and occasional fermenting I don’t feel any closer now to answering those questions than I did when I was a teen. I am absolutely certain that being an artist, even an exceptional one, doesn’t excuse anyone from the same ethics and morals that apply to the rest of us. Beyond that, though, things get murky.

Anonymity in art is double-edged. It spares us any judgments about what kind of person the artist was but it also removes a lot of the context that we use to think about and understand art. The little piece above, which I realize isn’t graffiti but rather a work stuck in a bookshelf at JJ’s coffee shop, is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. The explanation “I am an artist because of my natural exile from normal people,” is part of the work itself, and it raises a lot of questions. Who is this artist? How are they exiled? And is it ethical or moral to turn a public figure into a lemon?

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  1. Ann Koplow

    Necessary, artful questions, Chris. I’m discussing, reading, thinking, cogitating, ruminating, and fermenting along with you.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Fermentation is a process that should be done collectively and I’m glad you’re part of the group.

  2. mydangblog

    If you’ve read Orwell, you know that he struggled with the same questions regarding Salvador Dali. I can’t help but wonder what he would have made of replacing Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer in every scene of All The Money In The World.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Thank you for reminding me about Orwell on Dali. I read that a very long time ago and should go back and reread it. The funny thing is, if I remember correctly, Orwell was right about Dali, but for the wrong reasons. He thought Dali supported Franco when in fact I think Dali only said he supported Franco to shock people. Rather than being a defender of bad principles Dali was a man of no principles at all. Then again that may be what Orwell concluded.

  3. Donna

    Whenever possible I try to know only artist’s work, not the person. I can appreciate the art without potential conflicts. Sometimes, especially in the Facebook/Twitter/24-Hour-Broadcast age, knowing more is unavoidable.

    Being an artist is NOT an all-access/do-just-as-my-id-dictates/get-out-of-civilized-actions card (as much as I wish it was FOR ME ONLY at times).

    Having said that, I still like Woody Allen’s early stuff. My *meh* for his later offerings has nothing to do with his behavior.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Woody Allen is a great example–thank you for bringing him up. Not knowing much, or anything, about the artist behind a work is usually better, although sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that an artist may be a little eccentric or odd but is a genuinely good person. It’s just kind of telling that there are so very few examples of that.


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