Apparently I’m the first person to ask this question, or type it up and publish it online. At least a Google search turns up nothing. What everyone asks is, and I’m pretty sure you’ve heard it, “Can you like the art without liking the artist”? And by “without liking” they mean hating, or shunning, or calling out; and they are addressing sexists, misogynists, and your more garden variety chauvinist of yore. And the strong inclination among our more strident, revolutionary advocates for social change is to shelve the art along with the offending personality that created it. What better way to overturn the patriarchy than to disarm it of its historical icons? It’s much easier to think in all caps and triple exclamation points. Would it ever occur to anyone to switch the roles around, just as a thought experiment, and ponder their relationship with the art if the artist doesn’t like them?
Words have greater implications in the real world — contrary to what the linguistically inclined postmodernists would have us believe, there’s reality outside of text — and so when someone says, “we don’t like the artist” I imagine some sort of actual engagement with the artist. And then it occurs to me that I don’t imagine I’d much care for my favorite artists if I were to meet them in person.
Did anyone relish the company of Vincent Van Gogh? We adore his sunflowers, and we sympathize with his suffering, but if he were our neighbor at the time, we would have joined the dozens of other people who signed a petition to have him removed from the community as a pariah? He was more than a bit intense, wasn’t he? And he had a temper.
And what about Jackson Pollock? If he were anything in real life like he was portrayed in the movie Pollock, and performed by Ed Harris, I wouldn’t want to spend a minute in his presence.
Both Van Gogh and Pollock died before I was born, but Francis Bacon lived until 1992, and was my favorite artist in the 80s, and could only be tied, depending on mood, in the 90s. This is an artist I greatly admired, and who influences my work even today, and who I theoretically could have met under the right circumstances and with a bit of luck. From what I know about his life second hand, and what I can observe in filmed interviews, other than my great admiration of his art, I don’t see us having much in common. For one, I’m not a drinker. Sure, I’ll have beers or wine here and there, and enjoy it, but I’m not a daily imbiber. Meeting Bacon could very likely be meeting him inebriated at the pub.
And why would he find me the least bit interesting? He waded waist deep in decadence, and I’m a health nut in comparison. He was a hard core atheist, and I have spiritual leanings. He was a bad boy, and I’m a good guy. The bigger question wouldn’t be if I liked him or not, but if he’d have liked me, or even tolerated me enough to humor me. About the people who condemned his art, he once said that he would prefer that such “cows” didn’t like it. And then it hit me that the reviled Picasso most likely wouldn’t like the sort of people who would have his paintings taken down either.
Whether we think we like an artist or not, the chances of them liking us might be a bit slim. If we were somehow in their presence, they might not want to give us the time of day. Would we still like Vincent’s paintings if he mumbled under his breath at us while stomping off? What if Frida Kahlo turned her nose up at us? What if Jackson Pollock snapped at us? What if Edward Hopper avoided us religiously, or Andy Warhol found us insufficiently fashionable to be worthy of his attention?
I know, of course, that when people say that they “don’t like” an artist, they mean that they disapprove of their actions on moral grounds. They don’t say that, though. They’ve already fused denouncing someone’s behavior with not finding them charming, or what have you. But they don’t ask if the artist would like them, approve of their morality and behavior, or care for their life’s work.
The artist is in many ways as separate from the art as the chef is from the entrée. Artists can’t be perfect because they don’t get to design themselves, or arrange their circumstances. The perfection, or wonderfully imperfect vision, is realized in their work. The demands of making a body of work alone may make them inaccessible, hence hard to like. As I’m fond of saying, “judge the artist by the art, and not the other way around”.
Holy shit! A Google search for “judge the artist by the art, and not the other way around” only turns up quotes by yours truly. But even just “judge the artist by the art” without the second half, which might be said any number of ways, only turns up 14 results, four of which are by me, and a few of which include the word “Don’t” in front of them, for the complete opposite meaning. That’s a bigger topic than I’m addressing here, and has a lot to do with how someone represents themselves as opposed to how they are portrayed by society, or even their enemies. Should we consider Frida Kahlo in light of her paintings and particularly her self-portraits, or condemn her for adulating Stalin, who is responsible for the death of 20 million people?
It all gets a bit sticky, but on a simpler level, I think we can agree that we can judge the chef by the entrée in terms of how good of a cook he or she is. During the Olympics can we judge a gymnast or figure skater based on her allegiance to her country, if she is a nationalist, and her leader is Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un. Can a Trump supporter be the best power lifter?
When we talk about judging the art by the artist, we are subscribing to the idea that anyone’s achievements are only as good as their morality, or rather in terms of our morality. As I like to point out, this only works if it’s OUR morality that is the deciding factor. We don’t want the religious right (as in Jessie Helms, Rudolph Giuliani, and Donald Trump) to have the power to condemn artists based on their morality. This is why it’s safer to look to the art, and not what we, or their enemies, or malicious gossip tell us about the artist. It doesn’t make excuses for their behavior, and nobody — including OJ Simpson and hypothetically Carl Andre — should get away with murder. And I’m not making excuses or providing an escape route for patently sexist behavior, either. But to judge artists, especially throughout history or globally, by our contemporary morality is a dangerous precedent which we only would entrust to our own hands.
My Shakespeare lecturer at UCLA put forth the idea that what we say about Shakespeare may reflect a hell of a lot more on us than on Shakespeare. In other words, the literature may measure us as much or more than we it. Music aficionados, or at least the more eclectic ones, will agree that when people say that all rap, disco, country or jazz sucks, they are telling us about their own prejudice and ignorance.
When we talk about not liking artists, and thus that their art must suffer as well, we put ourselves in the driver’s seat of a steamroller poised in front of a row of canvases [for a contemporary example, consider the people who wanted to shut down a Dana Schutz show because of a painting that wasn’t even in it, which they interpreted as offensive, even if they knew the intent was absolutely not]. But the steamroller isn’t an armored tank, and when we condemn artists, we also put ourselves on a pedestal where we are vulnerable to being judged ourselves. There is another side to the coin, and the fact that it doesn’t even occur to people that artists might not like them either, or approve of their morality, is a sign that those who would condemn art and artists may not be doing so from a broad, generous, or empathetic perspective.
Not only do we judge or like art and artists, they or even their work may favor or condemn us as well. But to answer the question I raised in the beginning, yes, you can like the art whether or not the artist likes you, or you like the artist. You shouldn’t need to know the artist, or anything about her or him to engage with the work in the first place, and presuming to judge the art by how we judge the artist is on one level quite a cop-out, about on par with judging the equations of a scientist by his or her religious beliefs or lack thereof.
And if you disapprove of this or that artist’s behavior, and you want to see them eliminated from the cannon, go ahead and overshadow them with your own morally upright art. We can’t just disqualify people or diminish their achievement because they are on the other team, or because of their behavior. We can’t just rewrite the rules so good guys finish first. We have to outperform them.