Forgiving Art for the Sins of the Artist / by Chris Hall

Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist.  It is often pride, emulation, advarice, malice – all the odious qualities – which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed.  And in so doing he enriches the world more than the generous or good, though he may lose his soul in the process.  That is the paradox of artistic achievement.  Evelyn Waugh

. . . Lord God, grant me the grace to compose a few beautiful verses which will prove to me that I am not the lowliest of men and that I am not inferior to those I despise.
Charles Baudelaire

It says nothing against the ripeness of a spirit that it has a few worms. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

Georg Baselitz, The Brucke Chorus, 1983


Richard Strauss, Leni Riefenstahl, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, Richard Wagner, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot.  Can we forgive their fascist leanings and/or anti-semantic beliefs?  And what about a living artist such as Georg Baselitz, can we forgive his sexist remarks?  We don’t have to, but we can forgive their art.

I believe that art has some unique, autonomous value, some capacity or capability that trumps temporal concerns and supports ideals that have a timeless aspect.  In other words, art is greater than the artist.  Some critics, however, desiring a balance to the equation between art and artist, are upset by the idea that an artist can be a bad person, yet can also  produce great art; they would prefer it if the artist who is a bad person would also produce art that looks bad, or at least that it be tainted.  As for myself, if I could not separate the artwork from the life of the artist, I would at least try to reconcile the two.  

Politics, for better or worse, are a part of art.  While I believe a work of art can be judged according to the apparent politics of the work, you can also judge it for its aesthetic values as well. The value judgment of the entire work, then, does not hinge on either its politics or aesthetic considerations, but both.   . . . and if the politics are absent, then we can judge the work solely on aesthetics alone, independent of whatever beliefs or sins the artist may have committed in their personal life.  Just because an artist is a bad person, this does not necessarily mean that the work of said artist will also be bad.  

Too often, with de-constructionalist theory witch-hunts, we condemn works of art when we instead should condemn the lives of the artists.  In our contemporary world where both the critics and artists often conflate notions of art and life, it is sometimes difficult to image that they are indeed two different spheres.  

We can forgive the art for the sins of the artist.