The Importance of Personal Narrative: Violence by Caravaggio and Tom Otterness

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.

Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. We excuse his behavior because his work is so impressive.
  3. This is a narrative we, as an audience, approve of.
The third point is the one I want to focus on. Violence towards one’s self? Violence towards other human beings? This is the type of artistic narrative we expect, the type of narrative we sometimes condone.
I’d like to contrast this with something currently happening in Rochester. A Brooklyn-based artist, Tom Otterness, has been commissioned to create a sculpture for Memorial Art Gallery’s (MAG) upcoming sculpture garden. Otterness is creating a sculpture of a woman sculpting a man out of clay, a play on the Pygmalion myth.

A digital rendering of the artists' proposal.

The problem is, Tom Otterness shot a dog in a video performance piece thirty years ago.
There’s no denying this is horrible. Shooting a dog is not art, it’s just sick (And this is generally how all comments, articles, and any other types of statements about this issue are prefaced). A lot of people are outraged. There are groups protesting this decision (Actual protesting. Not just online complaints!), there are outraged articles being written, facebook groups being joined, charmingly titled petitions being signed.
But. And this is where articles generally state again that they don’t support violence against animals (Hey guys! I don’t support violence against animals!).
It was thirty years ago. The artist was only twenty-five years old and in a dark period of his life. A period where he made mistakes. Looking at other artwork of the time in which artists mutilated themselves and focused on violent performance pieces, Otterness’s work is not entirely out of place. The artist has apologized and seems to be expressing truthful remorse. He has never done anything of this nature again, and seems to be trying to move on with his life.
And the thing that I find most important? Rochester’s reaction is hardly original.
I first read about Tom Otterness this past summer. A very similar situation was occurring in San Francisco. And when I say very similar, I mean very similar. Otterness was commissioned for a public sculptural piece, local residents learned about his past, he was harassed, shamed for his actions, and faced with the cancellation of his work. You can read about it here.

Suspended Mind (2001)

Coqui (2005)

Silver Tower Playground (2010) Here's Otterness's website if you're interested.

It’s not our job anymore to punish Otterness for a horrible, violent act he committed thirty years ago (If it was ever the public’s job in the first place). That’s been done. Again and again over the past thirty years. The thing that gets me is that many of the people protesting Otterness’s work believe in rehabilitation and that those who commit crimes are better off being resocialized than punished until they die a lonely, ostracized death.
And while I think that the reaction to this is definitely based in Rochesterian’s opposition to animal abuse, I also think that this displays how we privilege one narrative over another. To many, Caravaggio is a troubled genius while Otterness is a sick bastard.
There are other types of violent artist narratives that hold a certain form of privilege. Do you know how many artists abused their spouses? Pollock, Picasso, Rivera… The list goes on. Why are we so outraged about Otterness yet so complacent about the violence perpetuated by these artists? Is it because they’re famous enough for us to excuse what they have done? Or is it because their type of violence is somehow considered more acceptable?
Personal narrative is a powerful thing. And attributing privilege to certain types of narratives can be a weird process where an audience ends up saying, well, this type of violence isn’t quite so violent as this type. Not to mention the fact that our attachment to certain types of narratives tends to limit inclusion of racial minorities, members of the lgbtq community, and women in the contemporary art scene and in art history (Which I intended to write more about, but I got majorly sidetracked. Personal Narrative Part II?). I’d be interested to hear others’ opinions about MAG’s decision to commission work from Otterness and the public’s reaction. Do you think that personal narrative plays a role in our acceptance or rejection of his work or am I way off base? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
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8 thoughts on “The Importance of Personal Narrative: Violence by Caravaggio and Tom Otterness

  1. Excellent Points! Definitely sending this on to several friends…

  2. Caravaggio redefines “martial artist”.
    The other guy: I just don’t like his stuff. Shame about the dog, but I don’t like the art.

  3. Briznecko says:

    Very interesting. I actually did not know about the Otterness debacle in Rochester, but I am not all that surprised his past offences started a controversy.

    I have a few sneaking suspicions why he is labeled a protestable artist, firstly the simple fact that he is a contemporary artist and Caravaggio lived over 400 years ago (as you already touched on). Distance and many years of male-dominated art history that LOVES Caravaggio has turned his problematic past to romantic and charming tale of the quintessential troubled artist. His story was first and foremost shaped within a patriarchal narrative that deliberately overplayed his hyper-masculinity and downplayed what made him (un)masculine (including his homosexual bend). The same happened with the narrative of Jackson Pollock, who was framed by the highly misogynistic Glement Greenberg. Otterness’ narrative as a contemporary artist is still being formed and is discussed in a much more egalitarian context. At least in this case, more than white men are informing the discussion and/or critiques of his work intertwined with his personal narrative.

    My other idea, which is probably going to sound awful, is that even within our current society deliberately killing an animal is seen as more diabolical than abusing a woman. Abusing women is still (unfortunately) seen as fairly commonplace within today’s culture, so people are less likely to pull out the picket signs against a man who hits his wife than someone who shot his dog. This is especially true within the context of art circles where mostly men (even of different races and orientations) are still championed over the work of women (Just ask the Gorilla Girls).

    • Thanks for adding so much to the discussion! I especially agree that Caravaggio and Pollock’s masculine features are heavily highlighted in their narratives; this ties in well to your other point that art history is male-dominated. I think it’s particularly important for us to be aware that art history was generally written by men, about men, and for men, and that it’s only fairly recently that we’ve acknowledged that women have been written out of our textbooks, and only recently that fields such as feminist art history have been treated with more legitimacy.

      I also agree with your final thought. I didn’t outright say it in this post, but I do think that we tend to normalize abuse of women to the point where animal abuse has more of a shock value. Completely messed up, but probably true.

  4. evol says:

    This is also really relevant to the Polanski case.

    • Very true. The question of whether an artist’s work can be viewed separately from their personal lives is seen throughout all forms of art. Otterness’s case is somewhat different in that what he did was a public act, part of his art, not his personal life. But the basic idea is the same. Thanks for bringing this up!

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