Should our knowledge of an artist and their wrongdoings change our opinion of their art? Everyday, more and more news about people’s harmful views and actions are coming to light, affecting their reputation and what we think of them. It also affects the way we treat their work.
For artists, it makes us question whether we should continue to display their work in a gallery or museum, and forever changes how we look at that painting or photograph. Should artists who have misbehaved still be allowed the space to display their work? And how should we, as viewers, react when coming across the work of an artist that we know has done wrong?
It's not possible to have a pure reading of an artwork whilst also having knowledge of an artist’s wrongdoings, especially if their beliefs or actions are visible within their work. Towards the end of Paul Gauguin’s life, he wasn’t creating many works and couldn’t support his wife and children. He left them to travel to French Polynesia, with the promise he would return with money and influence, and moved to a small village. By the end of the summer of 1892, Gauguin had married a 14-year-old girl and infected her with syphilis. He abandoned her when she was pregnant to return to Paris momentarily, before going on to marry and infect two more Tahitian girls, a 13-year-old girl and another 14-year-old girl.
Although he was not successful during his own lifetime, Gauguin’s work has gained fame and attention in the modern day. I know I can’t look at his paintings without being reminded of his actions, but when his work Nafea Faa Ipoipo, or When Will You Marry?, was sold in 2015, it broke the record for the highest price for a painting.
By continuing to give a stage and attention to these works, are we now allowing for the idea that these artists’ choices are forgiven and forgotten? What does it tell others when one buys such an artist’s work, that they admire it? That they approve? Or is it so much simpler? Does it just come down to someone liking Gaugin’s painting, being able to appreciate his style and the composition? Perhaps it just looks good above the fireplace. After all, there’s nothing wrong with liking an artwork because the colour’s are pretty, whether you do or don’t know about the deeper stories behind it.
But what about when the stories go public and are unavoidable? Nicholas Nixon took down a photographic exhibition after news of his mistreatment of his models was revealed. He knew his work wouldn't be looked at the same way afterwards.
'I believe it is impossible for my photographs to be viewed on their own merits any longer.' - Nicholas Nixon, 2018
Art is almost never viewed on it's own merits, there's always clues and hints given by others as to whether it deserves a viewer’s attention. Although Nixon was right, does that mean that we should still try to appreciate the work? It's different when the artist is still alive and the viewer is purchasing their work, hence consciously supporting them. This says to the world that you don't mind if they're a horrible person, because the colours match your rooms decor. But it must also be taken into consideration, who benefits financially from the viewer's time and attention? It’s all too easy to garner focus around an artist without having to put too much thought into whether you should. Posting a photo or sending a tweet about an artwork can also speak volumes to the world about how it doesn't necessarily matter what someone has done, as long as they create good art. These reactions from the viewer will massively affect the future of art and what's created to appeal to them from there on out.
So how do we acknowledge the artists behaviour whilst still trying to appreciate the work? Art museums tend to include information of the bad stuff alongside the good stuff, though sometimes there isn’t any context of the artist’s actions behind the work. Of course, we can't wipe clean museums and art history books of any artist who's misbehaved, otherwise there would be no way for us to learn from the past and seek not to repeat history.
It's up to us to decide how we will individually reconcile our knowledge of an artist with their work, and if we even should. We must make our own decisions on how and whether it affects our actions. Each case is different, with so many different aspects to take into consideration. Who suffers when the work is in the public presence? Who suffers when it's not? Artists are human, and all of us have lapses in judgement, we all make mistakes. But to try to seperate the art from the artist would be a step towards reducing our significance as a viewer. It would cover up the importance of how we affect the consideration of the work, as well as how we influence the consumption of future works.
Each of us are entitled to draw our own opinions and boundaries. So where do you stand? Let me know which works you still enjoy in spite of the artist, or even one's you're struggling to reclaim, by leaving a comment or tweeting @missjfclarke. If we care about what works get made in the future, we need to be conscious of what we support and how today.