Art Versus Artist: The Final Countdown

By Jack Canfora

This will be a short post and I can assure you that there’s a really, REALLY good reason for this: I want YOUR opinions on this topic at least as much to express my own. It is not, not, absolutely NOT because it’s 10:17 at night and after a very harried day, I have suddenly realized I need to post something. Absolutely not. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed in you for even suggesting that. You’re better than that.

Anyway, it’s a question that’s been asked a trillion times over time, but especially in recent times: can one, or more crucially, SHOULD one, separate the art from the artist? Oscar Wilde famously said that all art is quite meaningless. But the thing is, if you know Oscar Wilde like I would like to think that you think you do, you’d at least suspect that he meant that as the deepest of compliments. It somehow, perhaps, lifts Art above the utilitarian, the prosaic, in other words: the mundane.

Here’s the central problem at the core of its heart’s nub: Gaugin abandoned his family, T.S. Eliot was anti-Semitic, as was Ezra Pound but even more so, John Lennon hit his wife, Beethoven was famously ill-tempered and vengeful, Eugene O’Neill abandoned his children, Dr. Suess’ extramarital affair possibly led to his first wife’s suicide, Picasso was, well, Dear God, just awful in ways that none of us even has the energy to even think about right now.

You get the point: if we’re going to remove or, as I’m led to believe the kids are saying nowadays, Cancel, every artist whom we would likely deem morally deficient, our bookshelves would be largely empty, our music largely saturated with the banal, and the walls of our museums rather sparsely decorated.

Personally, I tend to adopt what philosophers call “Virtue Ethics,” and most others call “Copping Out.” Basically, artists don’t claim to be moral exemplars, and therefore great art, many would argue (even, perhaps, Mr. Wilde) is vital shouldn’t be chucked out because the artist was jerk of the highest order. Why hold artists to a higher standard, for example, than mathematicians or scientists? Issac Newton was apparently a particularly unpleasant person, Werner Von Braun worked for the Nazis, and speaking of Nazis, the Volkswagen was the brainchild of Hitler. Should we ignore Calculus (full disclosure: I always have), Rocket Science (I mean, it’s Rocket Science; it’s not brain surgery) or not find the Volkswagen Bus to be intrinsically awesome? Of course not.

So why is art different?

That wasn’t rhetorical, by the way. For me, the line I draw on this is fuzzy and admittedly wobbly. I tend to avoid giving my debatably earned money to artists who would still benefit from it, i.e., the living. I also think that, and I’m well aware I’m being heinously and baroquely reductive here, that a disproportionate number of artists wrestle with demons more than the average human to begin with. Indeed, that’s what compels many artists to make art in the first place. There are exceptions, obviously, but I do think that’s certainly a pattern.

What do you think? I find myself by large being pleasantly surprised when I find out a great artist was also a nice person. But let’s face it, I’m not the final authority on anything. I’m pretty unreliable. For example, doing things like leaving my post til the last minute is right up my alley. Although, as I’ve clearly established, that isn’t the case here. At all.

That’s what I think, anyway, about the Art/Artist quandary. But I’m not sure I entirely agree with myself. And now, over to you.

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46 thoughts on “Art Versus Artist: The Final Countdown

  1. Rather subjective question… Should I sell my home because the guy who framed it kicked his dog? What if he was a mass murderer?

    Seems to me it’s sort of like asking if the spirit of its creator haunts an artifact. I suppose it makes sense if the artist is associated with something so horrible as to overwhelm any other possible meaning in the artwork. I wouldn’t particularly want to look at something painted by Heinrich Himmler knowing of the incalculable suffering associated with its source. Gaugin… not so much. Do saints even create art?

  2. Ah… cancel culture. Waging kulturekamph for the good of humanity.

    I am waiting for someone to write a bot that would filter through the internet and mark those pages that offend. It would automatically put a check in the “inappropriate content” box for social media platforms, fwd the URL of websites and blog posts to a mass of ditto-head internet followers to rage against the author and send threatening letters to the platform it was on, the author’s employer and all Facebook friends.

    I get into this argument with true believers on both the left and the right. The most effective way to silence someone is to destroy them. The most effective way to intimidate someone is to demonstrate you CAN destroy them. Imagining that the imposition of silence is actually effective in eliminating a belief!

    Nothing stokes the fires of true believers quite like being suppressed. Ask the early Christians.

    This is all getting very Orwellian.

  3. Richard Wagner was an unsurpassed egotist, endlessly monologuing about himself and viciously disparaging fellow musicians, a prolific borrower of money with no intention of repaying, a buyer of lavish goods and ignorer of the bills, a womaniser, serial adulterer and very nasty anti-semite, and composer of some of the most beautiful, emotionally moving, thrilling, and inspiring music ever written. One could say that the gods move in exceedingly mysterious ways their wonders to perform, so let’s blame them, pity the composer, drown ourselves in the music, and thank the gods for that.

  4. If I can put it into the prospect. First off humans are not perfect. Essentially a work in process. Art is not a magic elixir able to change human nature and it does not reflect human perfection. Art in its pure form is perfection, not visible to the human eye. What I can not explain is how art is received by certain ones, where they, in turn, transpose it into forms we as humans can perceive. The diversity in art is the influence of the individual. Now, I must make myself clear here. What I have proposed here is how I see it. No proof or scientific facts, but to a degree, it does make sense

      1. , ‘who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes’. Oh, man, I love that! And isn’t that what art is; taking the insides of ourselves and putting it out?

  5. A true artist is compelled to express -whose balance of consciousness between the inner and outer nature is forever at a tipping point. As Carl Jung rightly observed, ‘who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes’. An artist is the product of their own nightmares, driven to make sense of an inner world that is forever at odds with the rationality of human life.

    1. ‘Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes’. Oh, man, I love that! And isn’t that what art is; taking the insides of ourselves and putting it out?

  6. We live in a world in which few things are black-and-white and a lot of things are gray. Are there things so over the edge as to warrant suppression? Cannibalism and gas chambers certainly come to mind. However, look how long the Epstein case has lingered, with many involved appearing to escape punishment. A key problem with modern law and the cancel crowd is capriciousness. They come down on some hard, and let others walk due to wealth, prejudice or a host of other factors. Should an artist get a pass because he/she has a dark side? The honest answer is, it depends. How dark is dark? However, that determination must be separated from prejudice.

  7. Ah, jackcanfora, you are a very good writer. You got me hooked into this post so I spent an agreeable half an hour looking up some of the artists and scientists you mention. And you seem like a decent guy, based on the only two posts I’ve ever seen from you. So, does it work the other way – do we have to or want to separate art from artists if we like them and what they stand for? Perhaps it works like this – we can appreciate art from artists if we don’t like or agree with their values but we have a deeper connection to works if we like them and don’t have to?

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I suspect you’re right, and I do think, as I said earlier, the lines for me are fuzzier than I’d like them to be. If Stalin was also a brilliant composer, I certainly wouldn’t listen to his music, but it’s seldom so cut and dried. Someone like John Lennon, for example, is a lot trickier, and not just because he didn’t conduct mass purges. He owned up to his shortcomings and made the explicitly a part of his art. In fact, of the artists I listed, he’s the one I feel unambiguously ok with because he was open and actively worked on trying to be a better person (not that this erases his mistakes). I agree with you that in an ideal world we could have artists who are generally good people. But, perhaps, in an ideal world, our need for art would be far less pressing, as we wouldn’t have the chasms in communication and commonality that art is so vital in bridging.

  8. Just to get a little more food for thought: Don’t we do the same for politicians? It seems to me how we regard the public actions a person makes doesn’t affect our judgment of their private behavior. I, personally, think it should, although, like you pointed out, the shelves of the library would be a little vacant.

  9. Very much a quandary! I’ve sat in on countless arguments over this, and I’ve yet to come down on one side or the other. Wish I had the answer, but if I did, I’d be incredibly vain and godlike. And then my moral compass would be in question, and would that mean I should be ignored or not?

  10. Sometimes the artist creating masterpieces is a terribly flawed human .and as much as that should be condemned, it’s unfair to take away due credit from his artistic creation…just an opinion 🙂

  11. I don’t believe an artist can be separated from the artwork. I do believe the degree of separation depends on whether the art was commissioned or if the artist created the artwork as a means of expression. In either event, I believe every artist incorporates his or her own inner soul into every piece of artwork, while at the same time, delivering the goods to the delight of the one who commissioned the assignment.

  12. Nahh, because every person has its own demons.. All of us have problems, and even me. I’m not the right person to judge others. If I enjoy the work, stay with the work. Simple like that. I don’t need to be a detective to find out every details about someone I like the art. I don’t wanna marry the artist, so why do I need to be judgmental?

  13. First of all, Bravo for posting such a funny, informative, and though-provoking piece, Jack. Well done. Secondly, I’m SO torn on this issue. My first thought was: Michael Jackson. Not that I’ve ever owned his albums or anything, but after watching that documentary? I literally have to change the radio station now. I cannot reconcile the amazing beat of Billie Jean with those horrific allegations. But I also see your point: a lot of amazing things have been created by perhaps not-so-amazing humans. So I’m wondering if there’s a line we all have? Hmm. I’ll be chewing on this one. Thanks for the thoughts, friend. 🕊

  14. Art and artist can be rarely viewed separate from each other.. Since art is the work of the heart of an artist, the intensity and honesty of it’s expression is the difference between a scientist’s intellectual work and an artist’s emotional and existential work.. And it’s quite obvious that art can never have any morals.. Art is a way more deeper than any sort of civic order which actually derives morals out of it’s stages of civilizations..😊🙏

  15. I think it depends. Art can inarguably rise above the artist, become its own incandescent, glorious thing that is enjoyable to consume or view. Having said that, just because an artist is talented doesn’t mean that person is above acting like a medium human being. If the guy who wrote this book I love is just a standard asshole a la Eleanor Shellstrop, I don’t really care. In fact, that’s probably exactly who I want to have drinks with at the bar, because snark may be mean-spirited, but it’s fun. But if I am fairly certain the guy is an incestuous pedophile, like Woody Allen, or a violent rapist, like Roman Polanski, that’s a little different. Those two are amazing directors, but what they allegedly did is inexcusable. Like, I know Charlie Manson killing your pregnant wife really sucked. But that does not mean you, as an adult man, turn around and rape a 14-year-old girl. And think about how many millions of dollars those two have. It’s disgusting that a large part of society is like, “yeah, he probably did it, but those are great movies.” I don’t put their artistic merit above the lives they have undoubtedly altered in a negative way. For me, I think they’re gross men, and while they are alive, I don’t want to give them royalties. Having said that, if the artist is dead, and as such, can no longer profit from the work, then I don’t see any moral or ethical high ground. The point is moot – the art exists, the artist doesn’t get money from it, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy it.

  16. This is an awesome article and question. The first thing that came to my mind was, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” There are an unbelievable number of stones being thrown around right now and I bet not a one by a sinless person. On the other hand, these are rather egregious sins, the ones you mention. On the other hand (yes, I have a lot of hands), so was the sin which prompted that quote. But yes, I agree with you that great creatives also tend to wrestle with greater, and by that I mean more universally unacceptable, demons. But I wonder, if we honestly delved into and contemplated the sins and shortcomings of the average person, and let’s say that average person is OURSELVES, if we found some bad behaviors in our past (or our present), would we all agree that the whole world should stop talking to our children, our own output? I think not. If we were to shun everything created by sinful people, at whatever level of sinfulness, we would all be sitting on the floor in a dark room. Actually, no, we would all be sitting on the ground outside because even a room was created by a sinner. But on the other hand (perhaps I’m two people), every person has the right to decide, for themselves, what they can and cannot put up with and for their own reasons. Perhaps the real question us is it right to attempt to force everyone else to judge by your own standards. In keeping with this, I hate hate hate what Bill Cosby did but if ever another Cosby Show episode comes across my field of vision, you can bet I’m gonna watch it. That show did a lot for my community, how others viewed us and how we felt about ourselves. Nothing will take that truth away.

  17. And what about having fallen deeply in love or like or a must-have relationship with some thing before knowing about the faults of its creator? How many would actually throw their Volkswagen away upon learning of it’s horrible origins?

  18. I think about this a lot. And for me, it comes down to the fact that an artist’s primary role is to provoke feeling, emotion, or thought. But if the artist’s past or continuing actions, words, or behaviors provoke a stronger negative reaction from me, then I will likely be put off by the art they have produced. I will be unable to separate the art from the artist.

  19. Very compelling post & responses to carry on the discussion—I rarely get this hooked & follow through to the end. I have nothing to add (I fall on the side of wishing I knew less about the bad-behaviored and more of the good they do, art having a redemptive purpose, too, I guess, and will go on digging good art, no matter it’s maker—Watched a Woody Allen movie the other night and laughed like an idiot, that is, helplessly, the sandal lurking in my afterthoughts) than add more, except to lament that maybe we know too much about artists, fetishize their lives way out of proportion to stable thinking. I wish I knew more about Picasso’s art and less about his behavior. What’s wrong with leaving people to their privacy? Isn’t being a voyeur kinda squeamish? Just saying. (You’v got to admire Banksy for his anonymity!)

  20. First off, I love this topic. Brilliant idea to manifest itself in the final hour of your day (hopefully you get to bed at a decent hour). Second, I’m torn on my answer as well. My guess would be that most people don’t even know the atrocities some of the artists you mentioned have committed. Just because I admire someone’s artwork or song, doesn’t mean I admire them as a person. On the other hand, some artists achieve such status they become a role model for the youth. I think as adults we can separate right from wrong much easier than children. That’s where the moral and issue of virtue comes into play. Then again, how many children know about the personal lives of some of these artists? You’ve definitely given me a great topic to bring up to my circle. Thanks for this post Jack!

  21. I agree. I believe art speaks for itself and the viewer interprets the art as they feel reflects their life and feelings. 2 viewers can interpret a painting differently, and as you said, it is usually inner demons that compel someone to make art in the 1st place. Nelson mandela wasn’t a saint either, and he is highly esteemed in history, so y nit artists?

  22. Can something beautiful, which has given joy to so many, and encouraged the creativity of others, be separated from the artist themselves? i.e. A book which helps people (I don’t have an example right now, sorry). Can the work itself be the thing that is focussed on?

    Obviously, without the specific events in the creator’s life occurring in the specific way they did, leading to them being the way they were, this work wouldn’t exist. I hope there’s some sense in the above paragraph before I started to ramble…

  23. ::sigh:: I’m glad I’m old and [likely] won’t be around to see what comes next in this cancel-it-before-everyone-finds-out-you’re-doing-something-worse world.
    Super post, much to think about. Should it work the other way, too? Must I like what an artist does if said artist is “pure” or “good” or simply hasn’t been caught doing something disgusting yet?

    Haaaa!! Just imagining artists’ statements of the future: “He works primarily in alcohol inks and acrylics, and brings forward his passion for the early Dadaists. His formative years were spent developing a lifelong need for cocaine and nubile fans; his past informs his current art. You have been warned.”

    I’m currently “arting” and desperately hope that people just look at what I do, not what I’ve done. Why? Because I haven’t done anything at all and who wants a boring bio?

    Seriously, tho, I think that society likes to snuggle up to celebs and when bad things come out about them it feels like betrayal. I absolutely don’t applaud certain behavior (some of it disgusts me), nor do I believe that the rich, the powerful, and the famous should be automatically exempt from society’s – ummm – expectations. But it makes no sense to me to thoughtlessly destroy the good that people create – even when those people do seriously sucky things.

    We can’t possibly know every “bad” thing a human being has done. We live with that truth. Is it hypocrisy or is it arrogance, to ignore that truth and continue to “love” the work done by people who seem to be “good?”

    I can’t stop to proof this so I hope it makes sense, typos and all.
    Thank you for sharing this post!

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