Art and Artist: Can we separate them?

It’s well known that Adolf Hitler, as a younger man, moved to Vienna to pursue a career in art. Widely regarded by critics as an unremarkable artist, it seems irrelevant to pose the following question when talking of Hitler, as his art is hardly worth talking about in its own right. But let’s imagine he produced the most breathtaking art before rising as the Führer. Could we still appreciate his masterpieces, in spite of his proceeding atrocities?

This is of course hypothetical, but there are real life examples where posing the question of whether artist and their art are bound together morally. I’ll take a look at a few examples and see if I can make any conclusions.

It’s well known to my friends on social media that I’m searching for a cat, and I’ve proclaimed that the namesake of my future feline companion will be ‘Morrissey’, of The Smiths fame. Artistically, he’s a man which I very much admire, and his poeticism has inspired a generation of Romantically angsty mini-Morrisseys. However, he’s recently risen to be a figure of political controversy, as was pointed out to me by my uncle after I announced my naming decision.

I find this to be an easily soluble dilemma. Morrissey hasn’t killed anyone (to the best of my knowledge, that is) and in spite of his questionable values on immigration and the recent coronavirus pandemic, the man has been a vehement proponent of animal rights (let us not forget The Smiths’ album Meat is Murder), was a vegetarian before it was cool and arguably contributed to making it cool. Compassion is always a good thing, which is essentially the moral core of vegetarianism. Morrissey has been practicing as such for many a year.

What I just said is not a particularly valid argument. I expect the Mafia respected the families of their assassination targets, that doesn’t make them any less morally reprehensible. Just because Morrissey is good to our furry counterparts does not excuse his outspoken and controversial views on humans.

The phrase ‘cancel culture’ might spring to mind here. In this case I find it easy to separate Morrissey’s political views from his artistic contributions. He’s not a criminal. I’m left-wing, Morrissey is of the right. Just because I don’t agree with him, I shouldn’t confuse what is ostensibly an opinion with the objective truth – a mistake which I think is made by many in today’s hyper-media era.

I might say “Let’s put him in front of the court of common sense” and evaluate Morrissey rationally using evidence, but ultimately common sense is still no objective moral barometer – my common sense is likely different to yours, I interpret (using my unconscious biases) the objective facts laid before me different to you.

Bottom line of this example: I still admire Morrissey’s art, and will still name my cat after him. Given the opportunity, I would not banish him from the land. Consensus is no good thing in society, we need those that disagree to make progress. Personally, I find it important respect those who have a different voice to mine, even when it’s offensive to me – an obvious thing to say, however it really does seem to go amiss in today’s age. My moral compass is not that of a god, I’m but a human – and as the great philosopher Bertrand Russell said:

I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong.

Bertrand Russell

But what about someone who really has done some terrible things. I mentioned Hitler at the beginning as a bit of shock factor, but there are real-life examples of valid art created by criminals. Literally: criminals. If you go to a visitor centre at a prison, there’s a chance they will have some sort of exhibition set up to present artworks made by inmates, some of whom (I would assume) have done some atrocious things.

Now, I’m not sure that one can walk in to a prison and buy some of this ‘outsider’ art, and therefore it likely has no monetary value, and so it becomes difficult to evaluate what the worth of their art actually is – however I could very much imagine some of this art selling on the black market.

I think in this case it’s the background of the artist that actually increases the prestige of the artwork. If I made a battleship out of matchsticks, nobody would bat an eyelid – yet if an inmate did so out of matches stolen from the stock room, then that would likely garner a great deal of attention. Perhaps the crimes of the artist actually make the art better?

We only need to look to Caravaggio, the Italian painter who died 400 years ago, to see this. Caravaggio was an alleged murderer, and was put on trial 11 times for various crimes, including libel and assault. Yet, he was still a wildly successful painter. His background adds a degree of ‘edge’ to his work, particularly when his own sexuality was reflected within it.

Are we, as consumers, just looking for a bit of ‘edgyness’ in modern life? Is it cool to deify someone who has committed crimes motivated by romance? There seems to be a cult of interest these days about serial killers (just look at the number of Netflix specials on them), so are we, in the modern age, just looking for something to spice up our cultural lives a little bit?

Perhaps, then, the question should be something like this: “Should we want to separate the art from the artist?” or “Is it morally justifiable to separate a criminal from their art?” To me it seems rather clear that it’s each individual’s choice as to whether they want to create a psychological divide between the two – i.e. It’s very difficult to establish ‘moral facts’, but that’s a post for another time.

I choose to disregard Morrissey’s political views, just as a fan of hip-hop might choose to ignore Kanye West’s political rants and theories. Many of us are able to do so, actually I know very few people who cannot do so.

An act of boycotting might be a good reason as to why some don’t separate the art from the artist. I disagree with someone’s views, I don’t want to give them the platform, and therefore I completely disregard or ignore their art.

To me, this seems like a good way of going about things if you feel so strongly about the acts which an artist has committed. Of course, as said before, if it’s a police matter, then it’s a police matter – however with controversy, or a murky past of some description, then one’s own choice not to consume art, a peaceful protest of sorts , rather than to go on the offensive, seems to be a noble thing to do.

Ultimately, art is art – when we look at a Van Gogh painting we are not looking at Van Gogh. Art is not the artist. Naturally, then, we appear to be judging based on context or intention rather than the art itself. This is still problematic, as even Hitler might have had pure intentions when he painted – perhaps his artistic life was separate from the political?

It goes without saying that Hitler’s art shouldn’t be on the market, for fear of being adopted by neo-nazis, and therefore is utterly worthless. However, as I said at the start, if he had painted a masterpiece (which, of course, he didn’t) then would we be able to at least appreciate it for it’s artistic worth, even if we can’t endow it with monetary value?

As you might have reckoned, there is no objective answer to this question. Ethics really is interesting and I plan on doing more in-depth analysis of ethics in the future. I just hope this serves as some food-for-thought.

If you enjoyed, feel free to share on social media, it would mean a lot. If you’re so inclined please leave a comment, it would be interesting to hear some other opinions. All the best everybody.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Louis, I very much enjoyed reading this post and am pleased to have discovered your blog. I studied Philosophy at university and particularly enjoyed theories/conversations on Aesthetics, especially the dilemma you’ve discussed here.

    I recently wrote a blog post about Creativity exploring the ancient idea of genius as a passing guest, which was held in Ancient Greek and Roman thinking. They believed that genius was not something a person could be/become but something a person only momentarily had – literally a ‘moment of genius’. In the modern day however, we tend to conflate the artist with their artwork, as you’ve explored here. I suggested that perhaps returning to this ancient view of creative genius might make us more comfortable with accepting that morally bad people can create beautiful, inspiring things, if we accept that they were only briefly a creative genius.

    You can read the full post here if you’re interested:

    Take care, Molly x


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