Whenever a talented artist turns out to be a supremely terrible human being, we, the consumers of their talent, are always invited to ‘separate the person from the art.’
Sometimes it’s easy enough. You can like Wagner’s music without his anti-semitism getting in the way of the rise and fall of a particular melody. Other times it is less easy. Woody Allen, who has had to deny sexually abusing his stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, has a film advert plastered all over the tube. The title is Fading Gigolo. The tagline is: ‘the worlds oldest profession just got older.’ This feels, well, less than helpful for anyone trying to separate the person from the art, so they can carry on enjoying Allen’s films in peace. And other times, such as the newly revealed paintings on sale via Charles Saatchi’s online gallery, depicting his assault on Nigella Lawson, it is plain impossible.
So what exactly are these distinctions we so judiciously make as we choose what to look at, listen to, or purchase? Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna prompted a tsunami of panicked debates about the so-called culture of misogyny in hiphop and R&B; I wonder if we will now see a proportionate debate about the culture of misogyny in art?
Damien Udaiyan, one of several artists who painted the assault, says his piece is supposed to be about Saatchi’s assault, but also a “comment about the art market, and how people control it.” Fair enough, although he’s selling it via Saatchi’s site for £5,870 – or, as I call it, 13 months’ rent – and the site gets a 30% commission. Perhaps that’s some other clever comment on the art market and the powerful people who control it.
In fact, artistic markets, critics, and canons alike have long treated women as objects not agents, and the market in general has long treated women as commodities or accessories to split a profit on, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Charles Saatchi, both successful artist and successful capitalist, would be able to profit from the commodification of his own assault on Lawson.
What perhaps should be surprising, though – or at least noteworthy – is that there are people who would purchase these pieces, allowing Saatchi to profit from his actions; indeed, that there are actually people who want to look at those pictures at all. But perhaps they are not for looking at; perhaps they are collectors’ items, to gather dust and financial value. Perhaps they are all about business, and nothing to do with beauty. What, then, is art even for?
At some point, it is not enough to just say that we are separating the art from the person. When somebody is profiting from the art, when it is reflecting a particular world view, when it is explicitly about more than just beauty for its own sake, then at some point we must ask: what is this for? What role does art play in forming our cultural norms, in how we intellectualise beauty?
Richard Dawkins got himself into a bit of a scrap on Twitter recently for disputing whether Shakespeare’s being white and male should be taken into account when weighing up his place in the literary canon. I adore Shakespeare but of course it matters if the art we take for granted as ‘the best’ validates and reflects one dominant experience more so than all others. Art validates our humanity. It tells us who we are.
We are fooling ourselves if we believe we are always able to separate the art from the person. We are fooling ourselves if we think it’s a coincidence that Saatchi is able to profit from his attack on Lawson, that fellow artists have chosen to sell it specifically via his site, that we are meant to feel sympathy for Othello when Desdemona is killed, that we trust Woody Allen’s portrayal of humanity to be objectively truthful. What are we looking at, exactly, when we look at a picture of Lawson’s traumatised, scared face, painted and sold for £5,870? Now: what is the value of it?