The Artful Collector: Love the Art, Hate the Artist?

Salvador Dali "The Great Masturbator" 1929.
Salvador Dali “The Great Masturbator” 1929. “Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being” (George Orwell, essay 1944)

I must have been 10 or 12, the day I was playing, for the upteenth time, the record containing an assortment of popular excerpts from the classical music repertoire. Ours was a musical home, and as soon as they started broadcasting the popular TV game “Name that Tune” my father and I adapted it to naming symphonies and operas, whistling allowed, and no prizes except for retaining one’s pride. Well, there I was, listening and humming, when I announced in the midst of one especially stirring theme “I really love this one!” It happened to be Also Sprach Zarathustra by German composer Richard Strauss. Which undoubtedly would be recognized by readers of my postings here from its use in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

My father, overhearing my comment, grumbled “yeah. Too bad he was a Nazi.”

To this day, I can’t hear Strauss’s name, or hear his music (most recently, the light-hearted opera Der Rosenkavalier) without remembering that remark. But should the man and therefore his works be forever tainted by his moral lapses, his cooperation with, and accommodation of, Hitler’s regime? My father was not alone in his criticism: sources generally agree that Strauss’s seeming relationship with the Nazis in the 1930s caused many in the music world to disavow his music. My father later even took to quoting his beloved Arturo Toscanini who had famously said “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.”

And right behind Strauss (a second class Wagner) was Wagner himself, who once wrote that Jews by definition were incapable of art.

What are we to do with this sort of moral conundrum? Bad men who produce good art? Having worn multiple hats over the years, as agent, collector, writer, researcher critic, I’ve had plenty of practice in the mental gymnastics needed to “separate the art from the artist.” But the exercise is tiring.

Crossing the Line

At what point do we cross that line between “ridicule, discrimination and disdain” as Steve Davidson described the “outing” of non-conformist members of society that may have driven them into the waiting arms of SF fandom, and total abhorrence, exclusion and intolerance, for thoughts or behaviors that you (and others) believe to be “beyond the pale”? Where do you draw the line? And by “artist” I’m talking about authors, too—as witness the most recent efforts to boycott Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” movie. Isn’t it tempting to paraphrase: “To Card the writer I take off my hat; to Card the man I put it back on again”. . . ?

Can we, should we, separate a person’s achievements, their “artistic gifts” (as it were) from their belief systems, their values, their behaviors? It’s an especially difficult dilemma now that social media, like Facebook, has allowed talented people to google us, find us, share views with us that we find silly, misinformed, or downright abhorrent—but ones we’d never have known about had it not been for the freewheeling nature of blogs, tweets, and the impulse to hit “send” without considering the possible blow-back. Do (or should) persons with special skills and talents get a “free pass”? Does outstanding achievement in the arts merit exemption from the norms that you and I (might) hold dear?

Do we forgive Polanski, and keep watching his movies . . . keep venerating Picasso despite his ill treatment of women  . . .  give Dali a pass despite a total lack of decency and mental depravity? Do we stay fans of Mel Gibson, keep buying prints by Kinkade, keep collecting Vaughn Bode’? At what point do YOU declare “enough is enough!” Or Is it possible to “attain an ambivalent view of something that divides people into irreconcilable camps,” to find some moral middle ground here, as observers suggest George Orwell attempted to do in his well-known essay Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali.

To quote from an excellent article on this subject, by Jim Lindgren that I found on the net, “good artists are not necessarily good people and bad people are not necessarily bad artists.” 

One of My First Dilemmas

Within a couple of years of establishing Worlds of Wonder, 1991, I began receiving correspondence and submissions of art from incarcerated men, prisoners eager to have someone be their “agent” outside prison walls. Sometimes they would get members of their family to write to me, asking for (and paying for), catalogs—which I would supply, not knowing their final destination. Then would come the pleas for help, and even samples of their work, sometimes produced on the back of flyers I included with the catalogs! Mind you: Among these were people with real talent.

With lots of time on their hands, but meager supplies, their submissions were crude, in pencil or ballpoint, and necessarily “miniature.” Their cover letters were unfailingly polite, often desperate, sometimes pleading. AND . . .  I was torn. In the beginning, I took pity, and responded, asking “You seem sincere; how did you get where you are, today? And then would come the answers: “armed robbery” (but I was set up); “forgery” (but it was a misunderstanding); drive by shooting (I had a bad lawyer); etc etc. Or “I was wrong, I am doing my time, I am going crazy, please help me . . . “.  But I couldn’t. “Convicted felon”—no matter what the reason—was not a place I could go. Someone else will have to champion “outsider art” of this kind: not me. Nowadays, I see those numbers on the envelope . . . signalling a correctional institution . . . and I don’t even bother to open it.

Good Art, Bad People

“I love Degas the artist,” said Douglas Druick, curator of European paintings at the Art Institute and co-curator, with John Leighton of London’s National Gallery, of Degas: Beyond Impressionism. “But I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Degas the man.” Shades of Toscanini, right?

Edgar Degas "Dance Class at the Opera" 1872publicly disavowed his previous friendships with Jewish artists, and refused to use models who he believed might be Jewish. He remained an outspoken anti-Semite and member of the anti-Semitic "Anti-Dreyfusards" until his death
Edgar Degas “Dance Class at the Opera” 1872.  “He publicly disavowed his previous friendships with Jewish artists, and refused to use models who he believed might be Jewish . . . remained an outspoken anti-Semite  until his death” (see wiki)

Degas, apparently, was a master at compartmentalizing his life, enabling him to keep his anti-semitism out of his art. And that, said Druick, is why the museum chose to mention the issues with women (i.e., arguments that he was a voyeur and objectified women) but mostly skipped Degas’ anti-Semitism. “We don’t assume everyone knows it,” he said, “but we’re not going out of our way to discuss it, either.” And there’s a good reason for that. Audiences might not take kindly to learning that about an artist revered for his paintings. Or would they care at all, what the views of a few dead French artists might be? It is now known that, during the time of the Dreyfus Affair (even though Dreyfus was later acquitted), the scandal fueled anti-Semitism and tore French society apart. French artists were caught up in that, with Degas, Cezanne and Renoir known for being staunchly anti-Dreyfus, while others such as Manet and Pissaro were Dreyfus sympathizers. Does it matter now?

Does it matter that Renoir said of him “What a creature he was, that Degas! All his friends had to leave him; I was one of the last to go, but even I couldn’t stay till the end.” (biography Degas

The fact is, bad people make good art all the time. As Charles McGrath opined in the New York Times The Opinion Pages “. . . bad people, or at least people who think and behave in ways most of us find abhorrent, make good art all the time.”

When you are dealing with “artistic types” it is practically assured that at some point you will be forced to deal with the eccentricities and anti-social behaviors that seem to afflict the more sensitive among us. It takes more work—but is there any moral dilemma? Usually, not.  

We are a forgiving community, especially when it comes to personal frailties. An artist’s anti-social behavior might sully their reputations, and diminish fans’ respect for their work, but their excesses hardly ever rise to the level of exile and exclusion. Do they? If you are rich, it is said, you are deemed “eccentric,” not crazy.  In that spirit, should artists who are exceptionally talented be excused as merely being  “bad boys” when their behavior otherwise would not be tolerated? What about those whose life choices test us “to the max.” Artists that we discover were (or are) bigoted or racist, whose personal lives are notable for being lousy fathers/ mothers, unfaithful husbands/ wives, or whose moral or ethical compass seems askew (compared to our own, of course). I’m talking about people who are supremely gifted as artists, but whose views make us question our “live and let live” philosophy. So I’m asking again: Should critical acclaim for artistic gifts exempt you from the standards we would apply to those less gifted?

At what point do we say “NOPE, it doesn’t matter how great an artist”?  Or do we never get to that point?

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  1. Jane, you typed “Do we forgive Polanski, and keep watching his movies . . . keep venerating Picasso despite his ill treatment of women . . . give Dali a pass despite a total lack of decency and mental depravity? Do we stay fans of Mel Gibson, keep buying prints by Kinkade, keep collecting Vaughn Bode’?”

    Bode!? Cross-dressing isn’t enough to put him in the company of Polanski. His (fatal) auto-eroticism was sad. What do I not know about Bode? I ask, curious, as the owner of five Bodes published on the outside of, and inside, GALAXY and IF.

  2. Humans are very complex creatures. It is certainly true that an individual who endorses/practices “evil” thoughts or deeds can also create art of transcending beauty. Whether this evil taints the beauty of the art in the mind of the viewer is totally subjective, of course . For me, when I find a work of amazing beauty created by an artist who is a “loathsome creep”, I simply feel that the artist has some part within him/her that is also beautiful. Not only does this not taint the art for me, but it actually makes it more intriguing in a way — how did evil create such beauty? Humans are very complex creatures.

  3. This “we” being referred to, of course, is the collective “us” 😉 – who are (as I hoped I made clear) not only made up of persons existing in opposite camps, depending on our individual beliefs, opinions and lifestyles, but also persons who have a difficult time in discussing this delicate issue and coming to common ground. For the individual who believes this is an “all or nothing” issue, as you do, “zero, zip, nada” – the answer does seem to be clear. And there, in a nutshell, is what I’m talking about! 😉 The extreme positions that divide us on this….and how “good and right” we feel on one side or another! YES, The artist does die, and the art does endure, and our lives, yes, would be sadly diminished if we had to give up the contributions of all the artists who made their own, and others’ lives miserable. But for those on the losing end of such selfishness, or even inhumanity, isn’t it worth asking “is it worth it?” For the great artist in the grips of creation, the question may not be answerable. They are driven to practice their art in the only way they can. But we (I), the audience, do have a choice whether to support that degree of commitment, dedication, preoccupation, that makes the truly great artist “a law unto themself” Like the ‘loathsome creep’ Polanski…. We don’t have to trash; but we also don’t have to spend money at the movies seeing his newest “Venus in Fur. 😉 Again, It’s the dialogue here that I believe is important….and thank you for starting that off!

  4. Trashing a work of art because of something about the creator — more and most particularly about his or her politics and beliefs — is… how shall I put this tactfully… Stalinist?

    It’s a subset of the argument ad hominem.

    The artist dies; the art endures. Polanski is a loathsome creep personally; this has -absolutely nothing to do- with his movies. By all means put him in jail for his crimes, but his movies are just movies.

    Furthermore, to quote Nietzsche, “Beware of those in whom the will to punish is strong.” Those with a strong sense of how Right and Good they are should also be suspect, as it’s closely related. Righteousness is fuel in the tank of the Will to Power.

    There are a lot of people who itch to censor and control and dominate. All for the very best of reasons… not. The Hayes Code seems to be rearing its ugly head.

    So how much are we entitled take into account an author’s “morals”?

    Answer: Zero. Zip. Nada.

    Incidentally, who is this “we” that’s referred to? There is no “we”, only individuals with their individual beliefs and opinions and lifestyles.

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