J.J. Charlesworth: Bad people can make good art

By J.J. Charlesworth

In the slew of abuse accusations that have been made since the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations broke, one of the more disturbing undercurrents has been a shift in the debate over how artworks relate to the lives of the artists who make them. Unquestionably, the notion that an artwork’s merit should be judged in the light of knowledge of the artist’s personal life and behaviour has gained traction in recent months. Beyond the revelations and condemnation of the abuse itself, public commentary – from op-ed articles to social-media chat forums – is fixated on the question of whether or not we should watch films or TV programmes by actors, or look at artworks by artists, once we hear about the way they have behaved. And moreover, whether we should accept that the artistic value of their work is itself bound up with – and inevitably tainted by – their personal lives and behaviour.

Writing on frieze.com in the wake of the artworld’s own post-Weinstein campaign ‘Not Surprised’ (following allegations of sexual misconduct brought against Artforum publisher Knight Landesman), Elvia Wilk dismisses the ‘arty excuses for the abusive behaviour of geniuses’ that allow that ‘he’s an asshole but he makes great work’. ‘It’s that last excuse that most urgently needs to be dismantled,’ Wilk writes: ‘In order to move beyond outcry to action, that statement must become a paradox. He cannot make good work if he is a sexual abuser. If a person is an abuser, the work cannot be good. I don’t just mean that the work is somehow tainted by bad behaviour. I mean the work itself is actually not good.’

While no one would endorse or excuse abusive behaviour by anyone, this is nevertheless an extreme conclusion that throws up some troubling questions. It turns on the widespread frustration that men might get away (and indeed have gotten away) with abusive behaviour while continuing to profit from their work. And given that many of the abuses that have been brought to light have operated within and to some extent been permitted by the framework of professional power relations, it’s not surprising that it’s led to a call for instant justice and the punishment of abusers by hitting them where it hurts. As Wilk puts it, ‘if we can agree that abusive worker = bad work, it follows that an acceptable form of social retribution in response to verified testimony – pending litigation – is to injure the careers of those workers.’

If campaigners want to punish transgressors by demanding a boycott of the work that allows them to earn a living, that’s one thing. Although there are, of course dangers, to this – involving the verification of an accusation, what punishment means, and who delivers it – about which we should be nervous (hence Wilk’s cautious emphasis on ‘verified testimony’, even though she elsewhere states that she errs ‘on the side of believing witnesses by default’).

But the idea that one should see the work itself as ‘bad work’ because of its author’s behaviour is itself equally troubling. The idea that we shouldn’t, or can no longer look at an artwork without referring to the author’s life, should be open to question. Artists as morally questionable and downright criminal as Caravaggio (he killed a man) or William Burroughs (he shot his wife in the head) or the weird English modernist Eric Gill (he had sex with his daughters) or Richard Wagner (he was fiercely anti-Semitic) still produced work that, strictly speaking, has its own merits, and, indeed is still deemed to have its own merits (London’s National Gallery held an exhibition exploring the influence of Caravaggio’s art earlier this year; Wagner concerts are still popular fare; Gill Sans remains a widely-used font).

To argue that ethical concerns are identical to aesthetic concerns destroys the distinction between the experience of artworks and the experience of social life

To argue that ethical concerns (how people should behave towards one another in society) are identical to aesthetic concerns (how an artwork has an effect on its audience) destroys the distinction between the experience of artworks and the experience of social life. It makes absolute the relationship between the meaning of an artwork and what is publicly acceptable, and, in the case of dead artists, makes the social values of the present arbiter over the past.

Aesthetics don’t always match ethics, because artworks are not people, and because the people who experience works (us), aren’t attending to the author of a work, but to something independent of the author. This isn’t to deny that an artist’s subjectivity leaves its traces in a work – all the recent tortured think-pieces by writers trying to decide whether to watch another Woody Allen film or Louis C.K. show ever again speak to the problem of interpreting a semi-biographical work in the light of public revelation. But it is to recognise that artworks are deliberated according to the broader interests and concerns of a diverse public. Insisting that the work equals the artist’s behaviour and opinions effectively asserts moral sanction over the audience’s freedom to consider its content, its effect and its value, on the audience’s own terms.

Trying to abolish the difference between the good or bad of an individual person and the good or bad of an artwork is really about imposing a new moral etiquette – one in which we feel obliged to disapprove of the work in order to show that we disapprove of the author. But audiences should be free to make their minds up about the behaviour of artists, and just as free to value artworks as something other than the person who makes them. We may not be able to trust artists to be good people. We should trust ourselves to judge good artworks.

From the December 2017 issue of ArtReview