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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Check out my theater company, damn you! Sorry. Anger issues: http://www.newnormalrep.org