The ethical and moral standards that we hold public figures to has increased compared to one or two generations ago. Social media channels have helped to expose people and have even worked as a judiciary public guillotine, in the form of canceling unworthy subjects.
This level of scrutiny has led us to demand more accountability for people's misconduct. However, it is worth considering that it is particularly puzzling when applied to artists. But first, let's make one point very clear, we do not wish to excuse any act of violence, abuse, or discrimination.
What we wish to explore is, how and if we can separate the criminal acts perpetrated by an artist from their works of art. If so, in which capacity is a creation independent from its creator?
Art pushes us to think and reflect. In some cases, it exposes the darkest of human feelings. But then what about the creators who live by those inclinations? There is a line that should not be crossed, and that is between reflecting upon human behavior, and acting on one's worst impulses.
Let's Not Forget
In the history of art, there are plenty of examples of artists who have brutally assaulted and even murdered. Most likely, if we apply contemporary standards to artists from the past, not many would be clear of any stain.
There are two resounding examples from the renaissance: one is Benvenuto Cellini, who in the 16th century killed repeatedly without remorse and without being punished. Even pardoned by the church. The other one is the painter Caravaggio, who was notoriously aggressive. He got away with being violent until the day he killed a man during a fight. Sentenced to death, he started a long period of exile, where he produced some of his most intense and iconic works. Moved by what happened to him, he lived in remorse and atonement, until his death in 1610.
By looking at his work we can perceive his internal struggle, his repentance, and his suffering for his actions. One of the most important altarpieces made by Caravaggio is The Seven Works of Mercy. Light is a guiding force, and here functions as as a metaphor for mercy. We can see that in the characters faces their earnest expressions indicate the human need for redemption. A constant thought in his mind, since he had hope for mercy for his own crimes.
Caravaggio is a master of light, and his contribution to visual art is invaluable. As photographers we can learn the use of shadows and light and the deeper meaning behind composition and symbolism. Not many would suggest that we should deprive ourselves of such knowledge just because of the artist's crimes.
Because artists excavate the uncanny mystery of human souls, perhaps we, the public jury, are more inclined to separate their actions from their work. We try to put what had happened in context to give some kind of reasoning. Mental health issues, troubled pasts, and so on are explanations that we are willing to consider to detach the art from the artist and save what we can.
But to what degree can we pardon? And is it morally okay to praise the art of a murderer or a sexual offender? Would it make it better, if they have paid (or will pay) for those crimes? Even more, after how long can crimes be forgotten? And which crimes are we willing to let slide into oblivion?
Not All Crimes Are Equal
Between the nineteenth century and the twenty century, Eric Gill was a designer, typographer, and sculptor. He is perhaps best known as the creator of Gill Sans, a font widely in use every day. He was also a serial sexual abuser of his two adolescent daughters. When we look at how many artists are known sexual offenders the list becomes embarrassingly long.
Too many photographers are notorious sexual predators, Terry Richards might be the first name to come up. Followed by Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, and many more, often celebrities or fashion photographers who take advantage of the situation and predisposition of the genre to sexually exploit and abuse models of any gender.
All of them have photographed famous and highly respected people. But do we still need to praise and seek out their imagery?
Photography, like art, stimulates dialogue, and indeed controversy can be important. It is up to us, the designated audience, to ultimately judge if we'd like to take into account a tarnished biography. There is no clear conclusion to such a dilemma.
Understanding how to detach the two entities, and if it is even possible, is an ethical conundrum that the art world is being forced to consider more and more. Some artists bring an invaluable asset to their craft and are a substantial contribution to the advancement of our sensibility. Perhaps, if such a value can be found, there is a space where art and the artist can coexist separately.
What is your point of view on the matter? Share your thoughts in the comments bellow