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When Bad People Make Good Things

April 2, 2018

The usual saying is: “When good people do bad things”, but I am reversing it and changing it instead of do to make and read: “When bad people make good things.” I am concerned with with the current fixation of people to confuse the moral actions of artists with their art works. I am most concerned here with the visual arts, as that is my field of expertise, but the confusion extents across other cultural fields. As an example, a person who chooses not to like the films of Woody Allen (even if they had before) because of past actuations of child molestation. I will not go into whether or not this has been proven in court as that has little to with the damnation he has concurred. The point is that his films have not changed. Peoples opinion about his films have changed because of their negative moral judgements about his character. This begs the question if people who had no knowledge about the actuations surrounding Allen and saw his films and liked them would their judgement be wrong? Hello Lolita.

A majority of people who visit public art galleries and museums have little, or no, knowledge of art history particularly the personal lives of the artists who produced the art that they are looking at. There is nothing wrong with that. Why should they? They normally make their judgements based on their emotions. Which is fine and follows along the lines: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Again, perfectly acceptable and often the major galleries and museums have many items that are generally likeable. Many viewers do vaguely know the names of artists who are considered ‘good’ like Rembrandt or Picasso plus other household names. I have often watched people first look at the label beside a painting to check the name of the artist to make sure that the painting was worth looking at. If it passed their name test, they would look at the painting with admiration while ignoring other equally good works by lesser known artists in the same gallery space. I am fine with this. Who am I to question their choices?

Should they know the back stories of the famous artists that they are supposed to admire? Caravaggio? Wasn’t he a murderer and a homosexual at a time when being a homosexual was illegal? Yes, on both counts. Speaking of homosexuals, Leonardo faced sodomy charges, but was saved by the pope. Now, are not Caravaggio and Leonardo important to the history of art and are not their works really famous? I could go on and on with serious character faults in famous artists from the 15th until the 19th centuries, but the one thing that you can count on is that their art has remained unchanged. Disregarding periodic changes in critical taste, good paintings remain good paintings even if their makers have been damned to the ninth level of Hell where they are keeping company with Virgil.

Amor Vincit Omnia, 1601–1602, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Caravaggio shows Cupid prevailing over all human endeavors: war, music, science, government. (Wikipedia)

Looking at more modern and contemporary art history, there are certainly artists who don’t pass the litmus test of current social acceptability. The beloved Gustav Klimt (and beloved is the right term) fathered at least fourteen children all of them out of wedlock. Not far behind was Lucian Freud with twelve children, ten out of wedlock. You could say that both of them had a thing with the ladies. Again, is their art important? You bet. Perhaps, it’s time to take all of those Klimt posters down. But, he was a pretty fair landscape painter as well.

This brings me to the strange case of the still living Chuck Close. Alas, poor Chuck has been accused of making smutty remarks, many years ago, about a woman’s breasts. This charge, via mostly social media, was enough for him to lose a major retrospective and be placed among the new class of non-persons. Again, the actuations have yet to be proven. I have known an artist or two, over my sixty years in the art world, who have used off colour language from time to time. Come to think of it, it’s hard to think of an artists who hasn’t. Even I, a pillar of propriety, have been called out by my friends (yes I have some) for my foul mouth. As far as remembering an off-colour comment I made to a woman about her attractiveness, twenty or more years ago, I claim the forgetfulness of old age. Chuck Close and I are about the same age, he is twenty-three months younger to the day.

My point is that Close and the other artists that I have mentioned are all reasonable good artists whose works stand on their own, remote from their personal lives. I could go all philosophical here and will in another post why this is true. I stand by the title article in this blog on art and beauty. Remember that my buddies Kant and Hegel cannot be wrong all the time. Beauty is important, my friends.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 2 April 2018.

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