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Art vs Artist: Is there an answer to the age-old question?

Image Credit: The Wall Street Journal

How would you react when you come to know that your favourite artist has been accused of violent crimes or hate speech? Would you condemn the artist and stop listening or buying their tracks or would you rather try to separate the art from the artist? Some might argue that a work of art has an independent value divorced from its creator and it should be judged solely based on its merit. Others say that art is inextricably linked to the behaviour and biography of its artist. So what’s a poor viewer got to do? 

Art is the physical expression of one's perspective of the world. Personal experiences and their relationship to their creator are what make it art. It can not exist in a vacuum. Because of its nature art can never be separated from its creator nor can creators be separated from their creations. That is, there can be no Picasso without Picasso. 

Picasso is indisputably one of the most influential and revolutionary painters to live in the 20th century. His works have been regularly acclaimed and universally lauded. However, his awfulness as a human being also stands undisputed. He was notoriously cruel to women. Francoise Gilot, ex-wife of Picasso, in her book Life With Picasso, details the abusive treatment she faced - including Picasso burning her cheek with his cigarette. 

'The King of rock 'n roll', Elvis Presley is regarded as one the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century. His music was widely loved and his albums regularly charted on billboards. ‘The King’ had seemingly found a sweet age in women like Leonardo Di Caprio except it was a bit lower, fourteen. He courted his ex-wife Priscilla when she was 14 and he was 24. He had flings with other 14-15 year olds. Dixie Locke and Recca Smith are the documented ones. 

History is littered with examples of great artists being terrible humans. Charles Dickens was famously racist. Edgar Degas had outright sexist and misogynist themes in his paintings. Charlie Chaplin’s three out of four wives were under eighteen. But that doesn't discount the fact that their creation isn't good. Great Expectations is one of my favourite book of Dickens. The Great Dictator is a piece of genius despite Chaplin’s personal life. However, the fact that most artists do not face the consequences of their actions due to their popularity is utterly baffling. It was Gilot who got cancelled rather than Picasso facing action for his abusive behaviour. 

So, as viewers and consumers, can we separate the art from its artist? And as an audience do we hold power over the art, do we make art? The answer to this question has been repeated over time and in a way is self-evident; we must separate the art from the artist. 

Roland Barthes's essay 'The Death of the Author' is a central text to post-structuralist literary theory. The text analyzes issues of authorial intent and its relationship between author and literary text. Barthes argues that while searching for the meaning of a text one needs to keep aside the authorial intent and the author's biography. He emphasizes the importance of the reader’s interpretation against the traditional approach of ‘definitive meaning’ based on the author’s bio.

For Barthes, assigning a text to the author is imposing a limit on the text. His essay gives an idea of how to navigate the muddy waters of the Art vs Artist debate. Barthes encourages his readers to separate an author from their text as “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile”. Removing the Author from the scene stirs up the readers to view the text from their perspective, it opens up the stage for the audience and the text is opened up for wide interpretations. Essentially, he argues that the reader and text co-create the meaning of a text. Thus eliminating the need of the Author and its ultimate death. 

"What is an author?", originally delivered as a lecture by French Philosopher Michael Foucault, was seen as a rebuttal to Barthes's essay. In it, Foucault attempts to define the term 'work'. He argues that even though many critics like Barthes advocate for the separation of the author from his work, we cannot designate something as work without knowing the identity of the author. For example, would a published author's Tweets constitute his 'works' too? If we elevate such forms of writing as 'work' then we might run into the problem of diluting the 'real work' of an author. Foucault argues, “The author’s name serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse” such that it “shows that this discourse is not ordinary everyday speech that merely comes and goes,” but “speech that must be received in a certain mode and . . . receives a certain status”. 

However, If we adopt Barthes's ideology, the choice for us becomes quite clear. We can sever all associations between Picasso and his art. A viewer can enjoy the art without bothering oneself with the troubling life of Picasso. However, Barthes’s ideology is not the one-size-fits-all answer to the debate. There is no specific literary theory out there that can give us the correct way of approaching art. Ultimately it depends on the audience on how it approaches it. 

Image Credit: Art in the Evenings

Not every piece of art is Picasso or Degas and neither is every viewer a critic. For the vast majority of people, the answer lies not in blacks or whites but rather in greys. An average person consumes art because he simply loves and gains pleasure from it. I or a literary critic for that matter can’t tell you how to approach art or what you are allowed to love or not. The viewer is the one who ultimately interprets it. The same painting may be interpreted in different ways by different persons, for some the biography of an author might be important to interpret the art but for some the biography might be irrelevant.

What it ultimately comes down to is acknowledging the faults of an artist and moving forward. Today, we acknowledge that Picasso was a terrible human being but we also concede to the fact that his art was revolutionary and inspiring. Many artists have done their share of terrible things but denying their art the fair chance to prove its mettle might prove detrimental as we will deprive ourselves of great works.


By: Hemanshu Yadav

Hemanshu is an undergraduate English literature student at Hindu College, University of Delhi. He has an avid interest in Literature, Economics and Politics.



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