Art Stands Apart

Art Stands Apart

by Elena Greco

Starry NightStarry Night, by Vincent van Gogh

Typical reading time: 3 minutes

December 10, 2017

At a time when the dark side of certain creative artists is being exposed, there has been a lot of discussion about whether we should allow ourselves to enjoy the art of artists who have done bad things. I strongly feel that art—the product of the artist—stands apart from the artist.

Once an artistic creation or work is made public, it belongs to us all. It doesn’t matter how it was produced, what mad genius produced it, what unsavory character gave birth to it, what shocking events might have been taking place in the life of the artist who made it. The final product, the work of art, stands on its own for all to behold and experience.

Quite a few famous people who have made great contributions to our culture—contributions that everyone can benefit from or be inspired by—were pretty heinous people in private. So what? Every one of us has a dark side. In fact, I suspect the larger the persona, the larger the dark side. I’m certainly not saying that it’s all right to be abusive to another person, or that bad behavior should not suffer consequences, or that creative artists should not try to be better human beings. I am saying that no one should feel guilty about enjoying or taking solace in the great art of someone who has fallen from grace. Chances are, you’ve been doing that for years without knowing it. Look up your favorite artist, writer, actor or musician, and you might be surprised to learn what their “real” life is or was like.

There are no perfect or saintly artists. History is replete with stories of artists behaving badly. That does not in the least detract from the value of their work or of anyone’s potential experience of it. Are you any less in awe of a great work of art if you learn that the creator kicked their dog the day it was created? It is the same with other unsavory behavior, the likes of which we are seeing now with increasing frequency and with seemingly worse transgressions with every new reveal.

In my own experience of creating, the final product never feels like “mine”; in fact, I feel rather removed from it. I do not feel ownership.  I look at artwork I created in my early life and see it as though it were created by someone else.  I read articles I wrote five years ago and experience them the way anyone else would.  I do not feel “related” to them.

I do not mind in the least watching In the Wings on a World Stage, a terrific documentary featuring Kevin Spacey, or watching any of Woody Allen’s iconic movies. I most definitely do not mind listening to the genius of James Levine, whether conducting an opera orchestra or playing the piano in recital with Luciano Pavarotti (a sublime experience; do listen to that recital if you can). I find their personal actions, assuming they are true (people are presumed innocent until proven guilty in this country), to be despicable and vile. I support their receiving just punishment and I would not want them in my personal life. That does not affect in the least my enjoyment of their work.

Picasso’s many lovers have no effect on my appreciation for his art. Van Gogh’s long-standing depression plays no part in my deep love for his painting, although I regret that he cut off his ear (if, in fact, he did that). Gauguin suffered from syphilis, alcoholism and drug addiction, yet I do not experience in his paintings any of those things; I see—and feel—life. My respect for Hemingway’s work is in no way countered by his alcoholism and other bad habits. Beethoven’s deafness (and I’m told he had some major tantrums, too) does not diminish the staggering greatness of his music, a century after he wrote it.

Looking at or listening to a work of art, there is often no way to know what was happening in the life of the artist who produced it or what their character flaws might have been.  Are we to research the history of the creator of every work of creativity we encounter before deciding whether it is acceptable for us to be inspired by it? Of course not.

Creative work comes from a place beyond the usual small selves of our daily lives, with their illnesses, character flaws and transgressions. It is, you might say, sacred, in that it was produced from the creators’ souls out of devotion to their art, their willingness to be consumed by the birth of their art, which transcended any nastiness in them. Enjoying or praising a creative artist’s creative work is not an endorsement of the person, but of the work. And if you can only allow yourself to enjoy art by artists who are ethically perfect … you will have no art to enjoy.

Never confuse the work with the person who created it. Art stands apart.

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