Conflicted art: how to approach works by morally bad artists
Great art is often made by morally problematic artists: Caravaggio was famous for his mesmerising use of chiaroscuro, but he was a murderer; Virginia Woolf was a pioneer in modern narrative devices, but she was anti-Semitic; Picasso paved the way for cubism, but he was a misogynist; and Eric Gill may have produced sensual and ‘erotic’ sculptures of the young female form, but he was a paedophile. There is a familiar squeamishness with which viewers engage and approach such works of art: knowing an artist’s biography and general moral character can affect how we interpret and value their works. While it’s true that our reactions to such artworks are frequently sensitive to biographical detail, should they be? Is it right that our assessment of art be infected by knowledge about the artist’s life, or, is this inappropriate, because an artwork’s creative origin has no bearing on its identity?
Drawing on analytical philosophy of art, this article argues that an artist’s moral character can indeed affect the content of their art. Focussing on a recent exhibition of Picasso’s art, I make use of a key notion: that of the correct, or true, ontology of artworks. It’s because artworks are historically informed objects that their identity and content is partly formed by the moral surroundings in which they are created.
Picasso said that his paintings were like the pages of his diary, and a major exhibition of his work at Tate Modern, Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, focussed on a single year of this diary, 1932. It was in that year that Picasso began one of his several affairs, this time with Marie-Thérèse Walter, unbeknownst to his first wife Olga Khokhlova, for eight years. Marie-Thérèse had a daughter with Picasso in 1935, though she was soon cast aside by the artist who had acquired a new mistress, Dora Maar.
The show at the Tate encapsulated this turbulent and intense time for Picasso, displaying soft and curvaceous portraits of his secret lover Marie-Thérèse, and jagged, rigid, and violent depictions of his then wife, Olga. Consider Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) which depicts Marie-Thérèse sat in a chair; her soft lilac flesh delicately twirling into the very form of the enveloping chair in which she sits. And in stark contrast, consider Woman with Dagger (December 1931), an enraged re-imaging of Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat (1793). A serrated and contorted grey female form, supposedly depicting Olga, attacks a rival – supposedly Marie-Thérèse – from above.
When we engage with these paintings, and notice their differences in form, composition, and colour, we cannot help but bring our knowledge about Picasso’s treatment and perception of women in general to our aesthetic experience. Picasso was a misogynist. He was physically and emotionally abusive towards several women, and held unsettling beliefs about them, telling one of his mistresses Françoise Gilot that ‘women are machines for suffering’ and that ‘for me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats.’ Functioning as mere muses, objects of god-like adoration, and also mere sexual objects, women for Picasso were a means to an end; in service of his art and his sexual appetite. Indeed, Picasso’s granddaughter Marina writes in her memoir that Picasso submitted women ‘to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them’ (Marina Picasso, 2001: 179). And several of the women in Picasso’s life did not escape unscathed: of the most important to him, two committed suicide, and two were dismissed as mad.
Knowing Picasso’s biography and general moral character affects how many viewers interpret and value his art, particularly his portraits of women. Many report being torn between the greatness of the paintings, constituted by their aesthetic properties of progressive beauty and grace, and the brutal chauvinist reality behind them. We recoil from these paintings, wrestling their supposed artistic merits and mesmerising content with the artist’s immoral, oppressive attitude towards women. This much is true, but should we react in this way?
Some theorists, such as the formalists Clive Bell and Roger Fry, would have you believe that we shouldn’t react squeamishly to such paintings. This is because such a reaction doesn’t track anything real in the artworks. Rather, we should interpret and assess an artwork based on its internal aesthetic merits alone; we shouldn’t bring anything from outside the painting to bear on how we witness it.
This kind of answer to the problem, i.e. that there is no problem, is what philosophers would call an Aestheticist response; a movement in both art criticism and the philosophy of art, which took hold in the latter half of the 19th century. Aestheticists hold that ethical criteria should not be brought to bear on the aesthetic realm, for subsuming art under ethical issues is to ignore the true essence of art, which is simply the affording of an intense aesthetic experience. Reinforced by the practice of ‘New Criticism’, formalist theorists focus on the textual or formal elements of works, releasing these features from the artist’s intentions and the context in which the work was made. Consequently, we should judge Picasso’s paintings for their intrinsic, material features alone. What Picasso was actually like towards his subjects should have no bearing on the quality, meaning, and aesthetic effect of his work.
So, to feel conflicted over a painting because the artist was a misogynist is inappropriate, because it doesn’t track any actual content or moral attitude in the work. This is a familiar sentiment: in a New York Times discussion of Roman Polanski’s trial concerning his alleged drugging and raping of a girl, the poet and novelist Jay Parini argued that art can indeed be separated from the artist. Using Picasso as an example, Parini argued that an artist’s moral character has no bearing on their artistic greatness or the products of their creativity. Rather, the vileness or moral enlightenment of an artist is just ‘another subject’ altogether. He says, ‘Nobody looks at a Picasso painting in a museum and says, “I should not take this work seriously because Picasso cheated on his many wives and was abusive to his son.”’ 
Unfortunately, this kind of approach gets the ontology of artworks wrong: artworks are more than just their material parts. They are created within certain historical events and times by people with particular identities and backgrounds, and the artworks consequently have such parameters built into them. As the philosopher Stephen Davies writes: ‘…the art that is produced is historically indexed, because its identity and content depend on relations tying it to the setting in which it was created’ (2006: 127). There is more to a poem than its text, and there is more to a painting than the way its visual forms are put together on a canvas.
Why should we think that this view of art is true? Well, let’s conduct a thought experiment. Consider Allen Jones’s group of three sculptures Hatstand, Table, and Chair (1969). This artwork consists of three minimally dressed women transformed into pieces of furniture and are taken by many theorists and critics to objectify women. Now imagine that in another world, much like our own, the very same sculptural forms were arranged in an identical way, but they were produced by a female feminist artist in the 21st century. It seems correct to assert that in this other world we’d have a very different artwork, one that did not itself objectify women, but rather exposed and protested against the objectification of women. So, we can imagine that the same constructed sculptural forms – the same type of composition – would manifest in two different artworks. In particular, the works would have different meanings and values depending on their historical origins. This demonstrates the importance of a work’s origin to its meaning and identity, indeed, to its being an artwork at all.
This can be reinforced by recalling Arthur Danto’s insight into visually indiscernible objects which constitute different artworks, or even different objects: some art, some not-art. Confronted by the baffling brilliance of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, Danto realised that our eyes alone cannot discern objects that are art, and objects that are not art. Moreover, our eyes alone cannot discern differences between distinct artworks. He asks us to imagine five identical red canvases on a wall.
The first depicts the historical event of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. The second is titled ‘Red Square’, cunningly depicting a Moscow landscape. The third is also called ‘Red Square’ but is a minimalist work. The fourth is entitled ‘Red Table cloth’, created by a cynical follower of Matisse. The fifth is an unfinished, merely primed canvas by Giorgione and never became a work of art (Danto, 1981: 2).
This shows us that many of the qualities in these artworks are not to be found in the visually indistinguishable expanse of red pigment. External qualities must enter into our assessment and experience of the work to fully understand it, and to value it. So, reducing Picasso’s Nude Woman in a Red Armchair or Woman with Dagger to their mere visual forms makes it mysterious why these are even works of art at all. When we engage with an artwork, we look at and experience its historical roots.
This ontology of art has implications for how we should interpret paintings like Picasso’s. Given that an artwork is a historically informed object, if we want to enquire into its meaning – moral or otherwise – we should interpret the artwork as a particular historically informed object. When we enquire into the meaning and effect of Picasso’s Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, the object of interpretation we’re concerned with is not the painting’s visual forms alone, but the painting as a whole with its historical identity, i.e. the artwork. The painting’s balmy curvaceous forms are only the beginning.
The initial Aestheticist response to this issue was on the wrong track. Artworks are historically informed objects, partly constituted by historical and moral parameters external to the canvas before you. An artist’s moral character is one of these parameters. So, an artist’s moral character can affect the content of their art.
How exactly might an artist’s moral character affect their work? Of course, the content of Picasso’s paintings isn’t determined only by Picasso’s sexist beliefs about women alone. Much like I can’t make the meaning of my words ‘Picasso was a misogynist’ mean ‘Picasso saw women as equals’ just by sheer willpower, Picasso’s paintings of Marie-Thérèse and Olga cannot express immoral sentiments about women just because Picasso happened to hold such sentiments. Rather, much like our chosen language must be suitable to communicate our beliefs, for the artist’s moral character to be aesthetically relevant, the painting in question must support or constitute evidence of such a character. As the philosopher Berys Gaut argues, painters can be ruthless or compassionate towards their subjects through their medium: ‘it is the way that a work conveys its ethical or other insights that makes them of aesthetic relevance’ (2007: 84). Painterly effects such as use of lighting, brushstrokes, and composition can convey a certain attitude towards the depicted subject.
Now, of course, people can express certain attitudes in one context and be different in another. Picasso may have mistreated the women in his life, but have been able to capture beauty and erotic, egalitarian love in his art. The same artist can be compassionate towards his painterly subject but be brutal towards her outside of the art. However, as Berys Gaut notes, ‘the test must be whether, in the light of one’s knowledge of the artist’s attitudes outside his work, one can detect in the work traces of these attitudes’ (2007: 74). By inspecting an artist’s work, we can detect expressed moral perspectives. And many of Picasso’s paintings of his mistresses and wives are clearly bound up with a certain moral perspective towards women.
Consider Picasso’s The Dream (1932). One of his many portraits of Marie-Thérèse in the Tate exhibition, the painting shows the artist’s lover sat sleeping in an armchair. Her head lulls to rest on her shoulder, her hands clasped as if to form a vulva. Her face seems blissfully calm, though half of it Picasso has turned into a phallus. This sleeping woman simply cannot get Picasso The Minotaur’s wondrous existence off her mind. And consider again Nude Woman in a Red Armchair. Marie-Thérèse’s body is entwined with the furniture, blending into it seamlessly, the chair caressing her as she becomes almost inanimate. While perhaps alluring, this compositional technique recalls Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres (1924), where a woman’s body becomes a musical instrument – literally an object, a tool for the artist’s purposes. Bearing in mind the historic oppression of women, and the Western artistic genre of the female nude which sustains sexual inequality (see Eaton 2012), these works cannot escape the significance of reducing a woman’s body to a mere thing; a thing without a subjectivity or complex consciousness.
This immoral sentiment towards women, manifesting in a treatment of them as mere objects of desire or censure, is expressed by Picasso through his painterly style and formal treatment of his sitters. As Gaut notes of Picasso, ‘knowledge of his attitudes towards women revealed in much of his life illuminates the kinds of attitudes towards women revealed in much of his work. Someone who was previously ignorant of the biographical facts could come, after learning them, to see attitudes in the paintings with greater focus and clarity that she previously had done’ (2007: 74).
The tension we feel towards Picasso’s paintings is not only appropriate but called for. To fully understand these works we must consider the context in which they were made. You are looking at a conflicted artistic expression of a man who used and abused women. In the art she is reduced to literal object-like forms: a chair, a penis. Now this is not to say that Picasso did not love these women, in some way. And this is not to say that these paintings are not great artistic achievements (that’s a problem for another day). But the philosopher of art demands that you scrutinise these paintings. For, among other things, they represent human beings with complex emotions and subjectivity as decorative objects. Innocent renderings of beautiful, genre-defining material forms? Look again.
Danto, A., (1981) The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: a Philosophy of Art (Harvard: Harvard University Press)
Davies, S., (2006) The Philosophy of Art (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016)
Eaton, A., (2012) ‘What’s Wrong with the (Female) Nude?’ in Maes, H., & Levinson, J., (eds.) Art and Pornography: Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Gaut, B., (2007) Art, Emotion and Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Picasso, M., (2001) Picasso My Grandfather (New York: Riverhead Books)
The Editors (2009) ‘The Polanski Uproar’ Room for Debate: a New York Times Blog accessed at: <https://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/29/the-polanski-uproar/?ref=us#gilmore> on 7/9/18