Art is personal. Artwork is tied very closely to the emotions and thoughts of the artist, making it difficult for audiences to objectively view one separately from the other. Because of this, we often teach the two as being intertwined and interdependent. And while this adds a new level of interest it also raises a host of issues regarding the separation of an artist’s life from their work; running into questions such as whether artists who have done horrible things should be allowed to exhibit in public spaces, how much personal experience is required for an artists’ concept to be successful, how we can fairly teach artists’ lives without manipulating information to conform to their work, and more.
One of the things I’ve noticed recently is the importance of an artists’ personal narrative; or rather, a certain type of personal narrative. When we read about artists such as Caravaggio and Gentileschi we view their work as being part of a struggle, as resulting from the personal demons in their lives. Even when it’s not true (Read about Artemisia Gentileschi and how critics and historians unfairly judged and defined her work based on her rape as a young woman here), we like to have a somewhat dramatic, and in a way, romanticized version of what made that person an artist.This narrative can’t be something simple, such as “Sally loved creating artwork, so she went to school and improved her skills, eventually creating an interesting body of work that people enjoyed”. It has to be something that we see as dramatic, traumatic, and exciting, but most of all, it has to fall within the range of accepted narratives. It’s almost as though we live in a sitcom, and we’re looking for tropes defining that character as the artist (Starving artist type? Check. Pretentious speech about the human condition? Check. Acting as a perfect, idealized love interest for the protagonist and gradually expanding their experiences and perspective? Cheeeeeck.)
We want our artists to be complicated yet simple all at the same time.
One of the ways we see the importance and status ascribed to certain personal narratives includes artists who were abusive, violent, and addicts. There are almost too many examples for these categories. I’ve already mentioned Caravaggio, who was known for boozing, brawling, gambling, and–the cherry on top of the dysfunctional sundae–murder.
But does that make us want to remove his work from all of the great museums? Does that make us pick up our signs and picket the Met? Hell no! In fact, I’m pretty sure that anyone suggesting such a thing would be laughed out of their job.
There are a few things that I suspect contribute to our indifference towards Caravaggio’s behavior:
- It was about 400 years ago. We have trouble viewing the past as something that actually happened, we prefer to view it as a very dramatic, very violent story.
- We excuse his behavior because his work is so impressive.
- This is a narrative we, as an audience, approve of.