GIBSON: Problematic people still create good art
Opinions Column: What's On My Mind
At the GAYpril kickoff event with Lena Waithe on Monday night, Waithe was pressed to respond to the anonymous allegation Babe published against Aziz Ansari and how that affects the quality and perception of their Netflix original series “Master of None.” Waithe said there should not be any effect. She then gave examples of “The Cosby Show” and Whitney Houston, and how the people who create art and media should then be able to be separated from it. This reminded me of a big question in my current art history seminar class that has been debated by the fathers of art history, philosophers and connoisseurs alike: How much do you consider the life of an artist in the evaluation of the quality of their art?
Formalists would likely easily agree with Waithe, strictly evaluating art for its face value, whereas iconographers, connoisseurs and appreciators of Hegel’s aesthetics would likely argue for a more holistic view of the work, the artist and the culture that it was created in. Personally, I am divided, because I would never want to begrudge someone for enjoying art for art’s sake, but as an art history student and lover of modern art, (which often depends on context), a formalist approach will never be enough for me.
Waithe insisted that she was not apologizing for these people’s “horrid” actions last night, but instead focused on sharing her own experiences with these works of art and deciding that that is more important than anything outside of that relationship. This focus on a contemporary relationship with an older work could bring in another layer of discussion for an art historian to evaluate, because some work could change meaning over time and in different cultures, which begs further questions about intent and perception of art.
But then, Waithe offered an alternate theory that f*cked up people just might make the best art. And maybe, she is on to something?
During the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, I never heard anyone suggest this, but maybe there is some truth to it. More than anything, though, this statement made me go back and look at the lives of some of my favorite visual artists and question how messed up they may have been.
The first is Edgar Degas. Degas’s ballerinas were so lifelike and fluid that you could imagine one of them floating off the canvas, jeté-ing away from where they were first painted with ease. His contributions to realism and impressionism and his friendly rivalry with (another one of my French favorites) Édouard Manet unmistakably helped shape that period of Parisian art and exhibition. But you could say his legacy is tainted by the misogynistic tones in his portrayals of women, specifically the young ballerinas he painted, who he reportedly called “little monkey girls,” equating them to animals. Additionally, after the Dreyfus Affair and his family’s own economic difficulties with Jewish competitors, he adopted anti-Semitic views.
Two other artists are Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. You may not know who Stieglitz is specifically, but I would bet you know his wife, modernist and abstract expressionist painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Stieglitz was a photographer, founder of Camera Work magazine, which pioneered the mainstream distribution of many new works of art and artists, and ran one of the hippest galleries in Manhattan in the early 20th century in addition to holding a certain level of leadership among the artists he showed within it. But, he may also be a big reason that O’Keeffe’s paintings were over-feminized and sexualized. His nude photo series of O’Keeffe that he exhibited alongside her paintings invited comparison that no one brought to her male counterpart Arthur Dove, who was painting similar nature-inspired abstract expressionist works. Additionally, his known infidelity and extreme aversion to having a child tormented O’Keeffe, while potentially inspiring some of her best paintings.
Nan Goldin is my absolute favorite photographer. Her grungy and intimate documentation of LGBT bodies, sexual liberation and the HIV crisis carries an inexplicable quality of intimacy that is rivaled by few, in my opinion. Although, her absolute largest critique is that she is a voyeur who exploits the very community she wishes to elevate the status and representation of. People accuse her of “spying” on her friends in a way that is disingenuous, even though they knew she was taking their photos. But, that does not change anything for me about the quality of her photos and that quality of intimacy and closeness, which make her photos so awe-inspiring, and she is still called “one of the greatest living photographers today.”
Brittany Gibson is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in art history and journalism and media studies and minoring in French. Her column, "What's On My Mind," runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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