"Great" Artist, Terrible Person: Rethinking How We Talk About, Think About, and Make Art After a History of Exclusion & Abuse

Disclaimer: Contains mentions of sexual assault, addiction, hate crimes, hate speech, violence, sexism, and controversial images. In addition, the opinions expressed in this article only represent those of the individual writer and not the editorial staff as a whole.

In the wake of the New York Magazine Soon-Yi profile and Gund Gallery’s screening of the 2000 film “Pollock,” in tandem with the rise of support for critical race and gender studies, the #MeToo movement, and comparative art and literature, we are asked to take another sobering look at the proverbial renegade-artist, genius-bohemian cowboy personality. This stereotypically male icon comes with a cult of mysticism and artistic devotees. Like Jackson Pollock and Woody Allen, his prolific body of work crafts a material and iconic image of himself and his art, crowding out any space in the narrative for those who suffered ‘for art’s sake.’

A moment in Pollock (2000) mirrored how many of us once and still imagine artist Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, as cornering her into the narrow role of wife/fangirl. After a long artistic montage of the artist laboring throughout the night, alone in his studio, the dutiful wife and muse enters: "You've done it, Pollock! You've cracked it wide open!"

The melodramatic declaration is probably the result of some artistic license from screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller; still, it perfectly encompasses one of the oldest and most prolific roles afforded to women in the vicinity of a so-called ‘artistic genius.’ They are the woman behind the curtain, the never-tiring and always-virtuous cheerleader. Not to mention the infallible muse.

Other available roles are the “whore” he sleeps with, the young Lolita who seduces him (usually during his marriage) but is not necessarily obliged to sleep with him, or the sex-starved, aging arts patron funding the genius’s escapades of uncharted glory. Ruth Kligman and Peggy Guggenheim often appear as such in narratives of Pollock’s, and in fiction, it is recreated again. In Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the unattainable and inspiring Holly Golightly appears with Paul Varjack’s patron, Emily Eustace Failenson, as if a true artist must attract these personalities as precursors to artistic success. It’s prescriptive, unjust, and perhaps worst of all, it leaves nothing for any non-cisgendered man to artistically interpret without the taint of an inescapable ‘ism’.

As someone who might not be an artist, but I dare say produces ‘art’... I know that to look at the work you and others’ once loved only to see the fingerprints of prejudice and hatred is nearly enough to make one put down the pen, the paintbrush, the camera; as if a blacklight is shone on the artistic record of yourself and others, evidence of these crimes shows up in every year and country and medium. It is not as if we haven’t tried to escape these tropes. The issue is not that every medium and style has been done, but that the history of art in all its forms is inescapable. Frankly, to do away with the influence of every offender would more than likely mean to do away with it all. Everyone was influenced by someone; before now those someones were routinely the “Greats” who most disgust us. Linda Nochlin aptly asserts in “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” that women have been prohibited from the artistic record for so many an era that the legacy we can inherit is infinitesimally smaller than any man’s. To honor ourselves, we must in some way appeal to the limited foreground afforded us.

Attempting to reclaim and subvert the art that excluded us can sometimes be empowering, but it is equally a constant reminder of a bohemian fraternity that did not want us. And this is not a distinctly feminine phenomenon. The sexism and anti-Semitism of 19th and 20th century America prevented Lee Krasner and Ruth Klinger from receiving notoriety in their right. Instead, they are remembered as Pollock’s lovers and inspirations. Art history is only beginning to reinsert them.

Regardless of it is as a historical fact, as an emotional experience, it is traumatizing to be influenced by your oppressor and aggressor personally or artistically. No matter how successful, the comparison of one’s own work to those persons who limited an artist’s ability to exist as a human being, as well as an art-maker, will never be more flattering than painful, never more liberating than limiting. The problem with reclaiming and rewriting a problematic canon is that it requires us to stare the pain of historical atrocity in the face, which might prevent repetition of action, but requires so many who are marked as outgroups (by gender, sexuality, religion, culture, physiology, geography) to re-experience the subliminal and/or outright attack of artworks and artists.

All over the globe, we are racing to find a way to untangle our relationship to these artists. Unfortunately people advocate on all sides: to remember the work regardless of the person behind it (Bad Deeds Don't Ruin Great Art, In Praise of Problematic Art, Can You Separate the Artist From the Art?, The Difference Between A Bad Person And A Bad Artist), to obliterate offenders and their work entirely (The Art of Monstrous Men, Mistresspieces: Why Switching Art By Men and Women Doesn't Work), to acknowledge both the work and the crimes (Good Art, Bad People, Do Crimes Taint Talent?), a mix of all of the above (The Picasso Problem, Can We Forgive Him?,  Philosophers On The Art of Morally Troubling Artists), or an apathy for finding a solution at all (Why It Shouldn't Be Thrown Away, When Bad People Happen To Good Art, Can You Enjoy Good Art By Bad People?, How Can Bad People Make Such Good Art?.

A defense often made for the suffering-tortured-artist image seemingly absolves them of blame or at the very least complicates our ability to talk about them as we would any other offender. It writes off their wrongs with an eye-for-an-eye philosophy that tells those victimized to simply get over it, or make “great” art from their suffering just as their oppressors did. It cheapens suffering. Equating systematic injustice with an outsider persona often purposefully cultivated to further an artistic or financial career is simply unacceptable.

The fact is that it’s dangerous to forgive these artists and it can be equally dangerous to praise them. Perhaps we can appreciate the artistic movements, techniques, and accomplishments of the individual works. To say though they are geniuses, that their work which is so often a product of prejudice and injustice, or that we should look on and adore a record of suffering calling it greatness is offensive.

The unfortunate conclusion is that I don’t know the precise answer of how to reconcile the language surrounding artists, artwork, and social justice. It is a daily grapple. With every conversation touching on artistic matters, I reconsider my language and thought patterns. I find microaggressions against others and myself from the way I contemplated art from five years and five minutes ago. The only thing I know to do is to keep reevaluating my art and influences, as unfulfilling as that may sometimes be.

‘To see the stars—or, more specifically, to believe in them, taxonomically—is to endorse a notion that the people before us on our screens, far from us and yet so close, exist… on some plane between ours and that of the gods.” -Jeanine Basinger

By virtue of the sheer celebrity surrounding so many artistic offenders as well as the monolithic presence of the artistic, literary and film canon, I am sometimes ignorant or forced to face the insidious shadow of these predators in my own work. Sometimes they seem inescapable. Sometimes I even wish I could appreciate these forms without remembering their histories, but forgetting a history is not a luxury that every woman, person of color, or person of minority identity possesses.

It boils down to the fact that artistic mediums are also social mediums. Art simultaneously represents it current surroundings and contributes to future ones. We can try to replace these artists with some less monstrous and equally talented ones. When we are forced to say “I feel influenced by their ‘artistic choices,’” even in a rebellion or parody of them, when we endeavor to reclaim their forms and styles, we can use language to distance ourselves from the person, referencing a single work or skill in place of a legacy of celebrity and otherworldly talent. I often feel I fail at this.

But the important thing is to reposition these personalities as human beings, with human limits, who made human choices. When we no longer equate them with their talent and when we are as aware of their offenses as we are their art, we might better be able to discuss what to do next. In the meantime, we need to identify and study their moral failures as critically as their artistic accomplishments.

Try as we might, we cannot forget them. Perhaps because we do not only want to avoid repetition but also because but we want to supplant them in the narrative. We want to achieve an untainted greatness, greater than theirs. And while we still try to rewrite the narrative, to locate their crimes is the most powerful thing we can do in the meantime. Maybe it will help us sooner identify these offenses before they happen and these offenders before they are canonized.


Image Credit: Feature,1,2