In-Depth: Art and Crime - When and How We Draw a Line


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.

Eve by Eric Gill

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.

The Seven Works of Mercy by Caravaggio 1607.

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.

Mario Testino, Ciao and East by Mario Testino

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

written by eparrino on 2023-01-08 #culture #controversy #crime-and-art #sexual-predators #murders #sexual-arrasmant #moral-standard #cancel-culture


  1. leisuresuit
    leisuresuit ·


  2. mharvey
    mharvey ·

    If you could manage to separate an artist from their work, would you not then only be left with a blank canvas?

  3. hervinsyah
    hervinsyah ·

    I'm interesting with part Caravagio as the master of the light. Couple month ago I watched dwtv Germany documentary about John Lochner who also the maestro of the light at mid century

  4. hervinsyah
    hervinsyah ·

    Sorry i mean Stefan Lochner

  5. paper_negs
    paper_negs ·

    @mharvey You pose a very interesting question, is it the artist often what makes the work interesting? I think this to be especially true when we speak of historical figures in art. I am not saying only interesting people make interesting art but often their stories drive the meaning of what they create to another level, the two are intertwined and inevitably bring a deeper meaning to one another, its symbiotic.

  6. eparrino
    eparrino ·

    @paper_negs I see your point but I want to challenge this idea, that an artist must have a challenging life in order to create. Take for example the writer Franz Kafka, he worked for an insurance company and wrote his novels in his spare time. He had a stable job that payed the bill, while pursuing his art, which he never got famous for in life.

  7. agrimony
    agrimony ·

    @eparrino sometimes it looks like someone has a normal life. but that can be wrong. we can't see what's going on inside of someone. Franz Kafka had great problems with his father and suffered from them all his life. his work is influenced by them and maybe were partly the reason why he started to write at all. of course we don't know that. but what I want to say is that people can have a challenging life too even when others are not able to recognize that because it is something that happens in private.

  8. eparrino
    eparrino ·

    @agrimony Exactly, I agree. The difference is that he didn't commit any crime against his father because of his issues, he also lived a simple life, still he created great art. He expressed him self and his feelings thought writings.

  9. paper_negs
    paper_negs ·

    @eparrino His ordinary life makes him equally as extraordinary and curious. I am not saying an artist must face challenges to create, in fact I believe that more often than not the things we view as rights of passage are more detrimental than beneficial to the process of creating. I am only stating that the artist's story and life are intertwined and bring a deeper meaning to the art created than when you know nothing of the artist. I was speaking more on the topic of separating the art from the artist, it was never meant to be a statement that people must have challenges in order to create, a person's story always give me a deeper meaning to their work.

  10. eparrino
    eparrino ·

    @paper_negs I agree with you generally speaking, but how about people that commit crimes and their art is inspired and provoked and guided, reenact (ect..) by those crimes? Are we complicit while watching as if we are perpetual witness of violence? I'm trying to dig deeper here, because it is a very controversial topic, and perhaps there isn't a clear line... 😉

  11. mharvey
    mharvey ·

    @eparrino, Your comment and question made me think of a verse from the book of Psalms 119:37. It says,
    “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in Your ways.”

    I think the psalmist desires to see things from God’s perspective, which is never changing vs. man’s perspective, which can change dramatically over time. His question is perhaps,
    Where is the line for God?
    Where is the line for me?

  12. paper_negs
    paper_negs ·

    @eparrino I understand where you are trying to push the conversation, I wasn’t discussing criminal behavior and the artist and being okay with it as the viewer. To me we really cannot separate the artist from their work, they are tethered. The discussion on where we draw the line is both personal and societal. We all will have personal lines, those lines might vary from what society deems as the line. I also believe there needs to be a clear distinction at least in discussing the topic between artist today and historical figures in art. I do believe in transparency, in other words do not show an artist for the parts the suit the narrative we want to tell. I think it’s important to see these individuals has a whole, good and bad. When we speak of artist who are dead, there is nothing to be done directly to the person, it’s to late for any justice, but as a society we can learn from them on multiple levels. To never discuss them, in my opinion could be at our own detriment just as idolizing them. If we do not discuss them, do we I turn not discuss their victims if any? Do we not shed light and open the conversation to their struggles and how intervention could have changed the end result? I don’t know, but I don’t think we should look the other way. I think that the personal line for each of us is clear, we know what makes us uncomfortable, what we are okay with and what we aren’t. It’s the line that society draws that’s much more difficult to define because it is generally speaking, more fluid and evolving. You have posed a topic that deserves much consideration and much discussion. Bringing things into the light strips them of their power and allows for deconstruction hopefully allowing us as a society learn and grow so that we can be better.

  13. eparrino
    eparrino ·

    @paper_negs Thank you for your comment. I appreciate that we have a healthy and open discussion. This what we need of more; sharing points of view between each other and work on difficult topics.

    @mharvey perhaps the answer to that question, can be guided by our beliefs, and our relationship with God. Maybe that's the way he speaks to us :)

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