Should an artists’ behaviour and beliefs be considered separate from their art? This complex and controversial issue has been debated in the art world for many years. In today’s Guardian, For example, Jonathan Jones writes, “Eric Gill was evil. His sculpture at BBC headquarters isn’t.” The now famously defaced sculpture outside the Beeb HQ was climbed upon and smashed with a hammer last year by a protester claiming to highlight Gill’s statue as a “paedophile” artwork. Now, a bit belatedly, the BBC will restore and preserve it. Jones says, “It’s right to do so”.
Gill was a British sculptor, engraver, and typographer considered one of the most influential artists of the early 20th century. However, he was also known for his predatory sexual behaviour, including sexual relationships with his daughters and family dog. This behaviour has understandably led to controversy and calls to reassess his legacy. Others argue that an artist’s life and work are intimately connected and cannot be separated.
Should art be judged solely on its merits, regardless of the artist’s personal life or behaviour? An artist’s work should be evaluated based on skill, aesthetic quality, and the emotions and ideas it conveys rather than the artist’s character faults or personal beliefs.
An artist’s life and work are intimately connected, and their behaviour and thoughts can significantly impact the meaning and interpretation of their art. Misogyny and racism is more blatantly noticeable today in artwork from past generations. It is perhaps better to display this work and debate why it is wrong rather than locking art up in a store room or, in the case of the Tates ‘Racist’ Mural by Rex Whistler, Tate has recently announced that the Black British artist Keith Piper will create a new work to be shown alongside the 1927 Tate Mural ‘The Pursuit of Rare Meats. The mural was deemed ‘unacceptable’ and ‘Racist’ by many visitors to the restaurant where the grade II listed mural depicts a black child chained to a moving horse cart was displayed.
Artists’ personal experiences may inform the themes and subjects they explore, but equally, much is created in the artist’s imagination. Ultimately, whether an artist’s sexual or racist behaviour can be separated from their art is personal opinion and interpretation. Some people may judge art solely on its merits, while others may feel that an artist’s behaviour and beliefs should be considered.
Both Gauguin and Picasso have been criticised for their misogyny and racism. Gauguin’s paintings often depicted women in idealised, exoticised, and sexualised ways, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and objectifying women. Additionally, he had sexual relationships with young girls while living in Tahiti, which would now be considered illegal.
Picasso’s treatment of women has been similarly criticised. Many of his paintings depict women as objects, and he had multiple relationships with women characterised by infidelity and emotional abuse. Additionally, some of his work has been accused of perpetuating racist stereotypes, particularly in his depictions of African masks and figures.
It is important to acknowledge and understand these criticisms, as they help contextualise and analyse these artists’ work. While their contributions to the art world are significant, it is also important to recognise and examine the harmful aspects of their work and behaviour. By doing so, we can engage in a more nuanced and critical understanding of their legacies.
In any case, I am trying to keep an open mind about judging artists on the physical strength of their work. However, I’m not sure I have the same gut sentiments as I used to when looking at the Fauvist painter Andre Derain (a Nazi collaborator), Le Corbusier, or Jean Cocteau, both Nazi sympathisers. The list goes on and on!
Words/Top Photo P C Robinson © Artlyst 2023