Can we separate the art from the artist?

I’ve just read a very murky article about separating the art from the artist. It’s a classic discussion. Should we – can we – view art intrinsic to itself, separate from the artist? Or should we view the art through the prism of what we know of the artist? Is the art beautiful in itself, or made more or less so because the artist was saint or sinner?

I’m simplifying of course what is a hugely complex, turgid question. As human beings we seek the definitive answer, but in this case I doubt the definitive answer exists. My suspicion is that as most art is intensely subjective then so to is the personal response to a question like this. We find ourselves drawn to pieces of art without really knowing why. It is only often afterwards that we can piece together some justification for that, but I would argue there remains a lot of chemical mystery in the process.

Art critics seek in their way to place the art in some context. There are influences, schools, historical context; then there is technique, and so on. I have the greatest of respect for the very best of the art critics, regardless of medium, but none of them can necessarily explain why this piece of music, this piece of art, resonates with us. They can apply a kind of mathematical analysis of the art, and place it within the cultural hierarchy. But why do I love this piece of music?

The article I read seemed to take the view that art was unique to itself, but argued that within the liberal world it had been appropriated in support of political belief. He argued that the mystery and unruly emotion of art had been dismissed from art in the liberal view because it was embarrassing to the cultural or political view of it. (I’m summarising and paraphrasing crazily a long and tangled article, so bear with me).

Now, I actually understand his point (if I understand it right). I’ve seen that tendency. It’s annoying and extremely boring. Art is ruled in or ruled out according to it’s perceived worth. It ceases to be art, but a cipher.

The article singles out liberals as being the guilty party in this. That’s a bit mischievous, particularly when you look at how art has been appropriated through history for political ends. Not many liberals in that lot. I think in this case he’s pointing the finger at the decent liberal heart on his sleeve type, and to that extent I think there is a greater tendency to observe art politically and culturally in the liberal world. That’s not to say that only they do it, or even that it is widespread. I don’t know that it is.

The greatness of art, in my view, is it’s mystery. The mystery of how it is created. Of what it makes us feel. The mystery of how something intangible can come to express something that seems true for most of us. How it enlarges us when it is good, and asks us questions we go out into the world wondering about.

That’s my take on art, and it may not be true for everyone – as the author of this article suggested. But then, is there a right way and a wrong way? If art is personal then it becomes ours, and how we respond to it is our business.

One of the dangers of art is people telling us how we should respond to it and what we should think. If I read an art critic it’s not so that I know how I should react to the art in question, but rather it’s the hope that in another’s perspective the art is illuminated in a different way, and with an explanation of context. That comes after though. The art is in me already, and I seek to understand it after the event.

The point of art is that is escapes the civilising constraints of convention when it is truly good. It can’t be pinned down, locked up. There is nothing definitive about it. It is, simply. It might be the work of man, but then it is set free.

People may attempt to appropriate it, they may seek to analyse and digest it according to their own perspective and experience. For me I accept art as it comes to me. It’s not entirely removed from the artist, it cannot be – the artist is the earth from which the art sprung. I can still appreciate the art in and by itself; the rest are layers to that appreciation or understanding.

For me that means I can’t like the music of Wagner less because he was an anti-Semite. I can’t disavow a painting when I discover the artist was a child molester. Nor will I like it more when I learn he was a hero instead. These discoveries will ask questions of me, but that’s what good art does. There is no clean or simple answer, nor perhaps an answer at all. Art is art. Like life, art is messy.


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