Daisy Leason discusses the controversial nature of art and whether it is susceptible to ‘cancel culture’.
Think of your favourite artist, dead or alive. Now think if they have done something ‘problematic’. Is it problematic enough to be ‘cancelled’ on twitter? Or enough to stop you consuming their art? Recently it seems impossible to enjoy the work of anyone without thinking of the horrific backstory of their life. From Harvey Weinstein to Michael Jackson. Yet when we look at visual art, it is unlikely we know the life of the artist in the same way we know those of modern artists. Furthermore, can we condemn an artist long dead, for actions that were acceptable for when they were alive? Is it possible to separate the art from the artist?
Some seem to think that the controversial history of an artist is an integral part of their art
Paul Gauguin is often credited with expanding ideas of Western portraiture by blending it with traditional ideas of Polynesian culture. There is no denying that his work is vivid, rich in colour, even revolutionary in the way it moved from revering white skin. However, many now claim that the work is essentially exploitative. Not only that, but Gauguin claimed to have slept with multiple Polynesian girls, some as young as 13. He has been slated by art critic Alistair Sooke as a “19thcentury Harvey Weinstein”. And of course, this behaviour is not acceptable in any form. But does that mean the art should be removed from galleries, or further, from history?
In fact, some seem to think that the controversial history of an artist is an integral part of their art. Gauguin’s current exhibition at the National Gallery has been critiqued by the Guardian, who accused the curators of ‘cowardice’. The majority of pictures of young girls were of those in Western clothing, dresses buttoned up to the neck. It seems as if the exhibition did not want to remind us of the topless, even naked, girls that Gauguin had painted. Yet, that too is a part of his art and his history. We do nothing to help change this by removing it from galleries. That is not to say that it should not be considered in context, but one can add to his art by remembering the true story of the girls behind it.
Egon Schiele was an Austrian, 20thcentury, figurative painter. His work is recognised for its raw sexuality and vividness, particularly in his self-portraits. He also had an incestuous interest in his sister, had a 17-year-old lover, and was arrested for seducing a girl below the age of consent. At the time he was alive he was widely disliked the open sexual nature of his paintings and the lifestyle he led. However, this does not mean that we, as a modern audience cannot appreciate his work. We can deplore his actions, and rightly so, whilst still realising that the art can be ground-breaking and interesting.
On the other hand, there is certainly a difference between appreciation and celebration of art. We can appreciate the changes and innovation that artists bring. This does not mean that they should be placed on a pedestal and we should discount the troubling history behind the art. In fact, we should embrace it so as to add to our understanding. We can look at the averted eyes of the women and girls in Gauguin’s portraits and wonder how much power they held. We can look at the distorted figures of Schiele and question how much they represent his life and personality. Just as knowing the context of a piece of literary text allows us to analyse it, knowing the life of an artist reveals knew insights into the art. Of course, it is impossible to ever truly understand what an artist is trying to convey but the more context we have the easer it becomes to draw our own conclusions. By hiding these controversial stories we are simply hiding a part of history that happened and should not be forgotten, no matter how terrible it was.