Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Not in the Public Interest

I’m in a tricky situation writing today’s blog as I want to talk to you about something, but it’s so complicated I’m not sure where to start. OK, here we go…

A couple of years ago, the Walker family went to the Isle of Man, and the book Mr Walker took with him was a biography of Eric Gill, by the lovely Fiona MacCarthy. Mr Walker has to look after some odd Gill drawings as part of his work and wanted to know more about the artist. Now I wish we knew a lot less.

Ironically, Gill didn't know when to say when...
All I knew at that point was that Gill was a bit eccentric and did nice fonts, used by many official bodies in Britain. I love his graphic work, I find it evocative of the thirties, it’s graceful and elegant. What I don’t like is all the incest and dog-fiddling and general horrific perversions that accompanied his artistic output. So, should I shun all of Gill’s work because I find him morally repugnant?

This blog is the result of a very interesting conversation I had on Facebook with some Pre-Raphaelite ladies about Ruskin. While Ruskin didn’t break any laws (as far as I know, although Fiona might have something to tell me on that score too) his behaviour towards women was unpleasant and damn right perverse. Balancing that are some acts of unbelievable sensitivity and forward-thinking support of women in the art. Is there a point when we have to dismiss the work of an artist as they hurt society more than they benefit it? Should there be such a tipping point, or should we separate creation from creator?

My gut reaction is that my enjoyment of a work of art is entirely separate from my endorsement or otherwise of the behaviour of the artist. Furthermore, I manage an uneasy relationship between one work and another by the same person. For example, I love Alice in Wonderland with an utter passion, but when I saw the an image of his in an exhibition on the Victorian Nude, I lost the plot…

Portrait of Alice Liddel
Oh, the above image of Alice Liddel is not the picture I'm talking about.  I am too much of a coward to post the image, for fear of getting done for kiddie porn.  The image is of a little girl of about six, nude and flat on her back, echoing Cabanel's Birth of Venus. I fretted about showing the image with blacked out areas, but to be honest it is just a picture of a little girl with no clothes on.  I have a little girl of six who frequently runs around the house with no clothes on, so by blacking out areas of what is arguably an innocent image I felt I was making it just what I feared it was.  Today has been a complicated place in Mrs Walker's head...

Why? Why should this bother me? Before I saw the image, I was aware that Carroll took pictures of little girls that were weird and questionable and I thought it was just something that Victorians did which is now seen as unacceptable, but this particular image made me swear out loud. It was in a section of an exhibition that was for over 18s only, acknowledging that modern viewers feel this is wrong. So, should I not read Alice in Wonderland as I think Lewis Carroll harboured paedophilic feelings? The mother of the little girl in the picture was present at the time of the photo and agreed to the image being taken, which winds me up even more. Could it be that there are things, such as photographing little girls as temptresses and goddesses, that were just clichés with no further or depraved thought given to it?

I know of people who won’t touch Carroll with a barge pole because of his photos and weird relationship with little girls, but as far as we know he did not commit a criminal act. So, should the line be drawn if an artist harms another person? OK, then what about Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal? He neglected her at best and was a proactive part of her suicide at worst. Looking at Beata Beatrix (left) I feel no doubt that Rossetti thinks he is to blame for her death, so should I reject his work because (on his own evidence) he mentally tortured a woman into taking her own life?

Richard Dadd’s Fairy-Fellers Master-Stroke (right) is one of my favourite pictures because it is so insanely detailed, in all senses of the phrase (also, it’s one of my favourite Queen songs). I find it interesting the character that is a portrait of his father is in the pathway of the axe, possibly reflecting his father’s murder. It’s horrible, but Dadd was insane and any judgement I feel towards him is entirely tempered, if not totally negated, by my sympathy towards a sufferer of a severe mental illness. However, my understanding liberal position is no comfort to his dad, I’m sure. Do I not judge or blame Dadd and his work because he was insane? Surely people who commit acts of cruelty and perversion can claim a mental imbalance that causes them to go against the well being of others? Is it right that I am willing to overlook murder, but uncomfortable with a man who photographed children?

My further worry is this. It has been hinted to me by someone whose knowledge on these matters I respect, that there are some very dark secrets as yet unpublished about a painter I love. If I understand them rightly, it’s terrible and it would affect the way I see their art because it puts things in a whole new context. It might be that one day soon this stuff is published and we have to deal with it, but should it be? If the criminal acts happened, it was over a hundred years ago and all those affected are dead; is it selfish of me to say I don’t want to know, I want to enjoy the pretty pictures without my brain saying ‘But, of course, you know what he did….’?

I would like to sum up nice and neatly, but I’m not sure that I can today. I can just tell you what I think and would very much like to hear what you feel. I have it narrowed down to the following in my own head:

If a piece of information is already in the public domain, then maybe it can help me understand their work in a different way. The complexity of Carroll’s love for Alice does add something to his work, a sadness, maybe even a jealousy for the lack of care that little girls have. I can rationalise it as a-sexual, and I choose to interpret it as that until someone cares to prove me wrong.

As for artists who misdeeds are as yet unknown, I think I would rather not know. As a fellow human, of course I want to know, the side of me that is interested in people always wants to know everything. However, part of me doesn’t want to know about the dark misdeeds of a beloved artist as I don’t think it adds anything to my appreciation of his art to know his dark secret.

If it isn’t apparent from his art instinctively, then I think it’s none of my business.

I’ve argued myself into a corner as in the case of The Unnamed Artist, I had already guessed his secret after viewing a retrospective of his paintings about a decade or so ago. Urgh, people are revolting…


  1. Brilliant post - I've discussed with loads of people and don't know the answer. Is genius meant to be normal? I suspect Carroll did know what he was doing as he destroyed most of the nude ones.

  2. Really interesting post and I feel fairly instinctively that I wouldn't want to know about the misdeeds of an artists I love. I think do think that real aesthetic pleasure can escape the social and political misgivings you may have about an artists but anything less than a painting that really moves you is likely to be tarnished.

  3. I am only now learning about the backgrounds of the artists that I love. These are things that I should have learned about in art school (I went to a Catholic College - take from that what you will) and though I am not surprised by all the skeletons in the closets I am finding out about, it does make me wonder.

    We do have the Michael Jacksons of this century. He was a brilliant artist but because of what I "think" I know about him, I cannot listen to his music any longer without it being tarnished with doubt.

    I also know that many people are unjustly accused, so I try to keep an open mind until the jury finds reasonable doubt.

  4. I personally go about it like this: I study people, their paths and their works. At no time I claim ownership of their lives nor of any of the information that entails them as a person. Whatever I enjoy in their artworks or characters aspects I can only enjoy because it is something that is already *in me*. Something that gets mirrored by them, yet isn't *off* them alone. Why should I not enjoy joy and reject things I reject all at the same time? The one thing doesn't cancel out the other. If at all, it is worthwhile to study further and become clearer on why one feels repelled about something and know one's own limits and pathways through the mirror even more awares.
    So, where is the conflict? I'm not sure I understand. Is it that you are trying to claim ownership to the artworks that create your convictions? But they don't really, do they? Because all they do is highlight what's already in you.

  5. This is a heavy subject.
    Like you, I'm conflicted. On the one hand, I think we should be able to separate the artist's work from his personal life. But on the other hand, I can't always do that. Hitler was a painter. I've never seen his work but I don't think there is any way I can appreciate or enjoy it because he was such a psychotic monster. Of course, examining his work may be useful to someone who would be able to study it and perhaps gain useful insight into his psyche.
    I agree with Diane when she mentioned Michael Jackson. I have no idea what is true about him, but I do know he behave oddly and in an inappropriate manner. And just writing that, I realize that I'm a hypocrite, because there is also innuendo about Lewis Carroll and I tend to look the other way and give him the benefit of the doubt. I tell myself that he wasn't a pedophile and that he was just socially awkward and related to children better. But, then again, why would he relate better to only female children? If he were living today and exhibiting the same behavior, we would be suspicious and probably not leave our daughters alone with him. But, like you, I am going to cling to the belief that he was a-sexual and that his intentions were pure.
    You see, I talk myself into the same corners. I'm stuck in the same circles.
    I hate Rossetti for disturbing Lizzie's grave, but without that act many people wouldn't even know of her. And without that act, we wouldn't have a good portion of his poetic works. I find myself on the fence again and again and again.
    I'm even on the fence as to whether or not I would want to know something despicable.
    My first thought is: no. I don't want to know.
    Unfortunately, I know myself better than that. I have a compulsive need *to know*. Of course, I'll dig and dig until I do know.
    You've given me a lot to think about. I think I shall ponder this some more and comment again tomorrow.

  6. I'm of many minds about it. On the one hand, it does say something about the richness of humanity that someone who did great ill in their life created great beauty as well - it adds to the complexity of the human mind. On the other hand I've had difficulties defending my fondness for various creators after seeing behaviour that disturbed me. On yet a third hand, by not educating ourselves fully about the creators we admire, we run the risk of "whitewashing" them, lionizing them without thought to what victims their behaviour may have created.

    I suppose in the end my instinct is to know, to try to come to a better, more whole understanding of the creator.

  7. Joining the fray, my lovey. An *excellent* post, as has already been said, and I agree with many of the comments written here, as well as much of the conflicted feeling expressed toward the artists in question.

    I just had to add the fact that it seems like for many of us who are avid, rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth Pre-Raphaelite obsessed passionate people, (is that enough description? LOL) the artists of the Brotherhood are not just some old artists who lived over a hundred years ago. We've already talked bunches of times about the fact that that's true. But if you take the fact that these artists are in some ways like our friends whom we gab to each other about, joke about, build a kinship around, can spend days gossiping about it makes sense that their interpersonal conficts and quirks and sometimes morally questionable behavior would be responded to in a similar way to people we know and love in our contemporary circle of friends.

    By that I mean...I really have some issues with Rossetti as a moral person. He has character flaws that really bug me, and I have to say that just personally, I don't much like him. But, say, Verity for instance *loves* Rossetti, and I would never ask her to feel any different about him. Ned's flaws are easier for me to overlook and excuse because of my personal enthusiasm for him, as Stephanie mentioned about Carrol. And when I was reading Stunner, I noticed that you did an excellent job of sharing some of the less savory sides of Fanny's personality while simultaneously never losing your passion and enthusiasm for her. Whatever people we lean more toward in our circle of the artists we love, they tend to be the ones that we excuse more. And lawdy, don't we excuse more in our friends than in people we don't know?

    This says nothing to the rightness or wrongness of what we do, but it does acknowledge that...hell YES we all do it. Just like if say Stephanie and Kirsty got in a fight (giggle..I choose this because I can't imagine it EVER happening), some people might side more with one than the other, and it would be unclear perhaps which side is entirely in the right. The same thing I think is true for the Pre-Raphaelites and other artists and creative thinkers that we have a passion for.

    Oh, and Ruskin was an arse.

  8. I don't have a very educated opinion, but I feel like I can keep the artist's work and personal life separate as long as the artist kept them separate. I don't know whether or not Carrol was a pedophile, but I do know that I never felt uncomfortable with anything in his Alice books. I can still love Francis Thompson's poetry even though he's suspected of being Jack the Ripper, because none of the poems I love seem to condone murder. (That was kind of a dry way to put it. Basically none of the poems scream "I mutilate and murder prostitutes and it's just great"?)

    I say that, but I still have trouble separating the art from the life, even if they are very separate. You would never guess anything about Eric Gill from his typography, but knowing what he did to his children makes me want to never use Gill Sans again.

    I feel the same about Ruskin. Such a creep.

    I guess it would be impossible to appreciate a lot of art if we didn't keep it separate from the lives of the people who created it. And I guess if their art and their awful habits do intersect in some works, I'd just condemn those certain works? It's a really interesting topic that I have to think more about. Thanks for such a good post!

    Must you taunt us with these hints about an The Unnamed Artist?? Please don't let it any of the ones I have secret ridiculous crushes on.

  9. I must echo R.A. in wanting to know (and not know, at the same time!) the identity of the Unnamed Artist.

    For me, the immorality and all-too-human frailty of the artists I love, in the PRB and elsewhere, make their work even more alive. To know the history of Rossetti's very bad treatment of poor Lizzie is to bring paintings like Beata Beatrix to vivid life before my eyes.

    Also, I find I must be careful of making one person a devil and another a saint, just because I personally like their work. For example, I just read an older book on the Ruskin/Millais/Effie affair, "Millais and the Ruskins" by Mary Lutyens (granddaughter - or was it daughter? - of Sir Edwin Lutyens). She quotes extensively from everybody's letters (the extant ones, of course) and while I totally agree that Ruskin was in many ways completely unfit for marriage, there were some actions and sentiments on the part of Effie that sometimes exacerbated the difficulties she was undergoing. So, much as I would like to see her as the utterly blameless victim, there are moments where she does not come across as the most understanding or giving of women, at a point when it might have eased a situation or two.

    That said, her and Millais' restraint after the breakup of her marriage was so commendable, and their subsequent married life, though not untroubled, was certainly a far superior experience to the one she had with Ruskin. So that keeps them both higher in my regard than Ruskin ever could be, with all his bitter pettiness during the annulment proceedings, etc.

    So, having demonstrated that sometimes things are not as cut and dried, morally speaking, as it seems to us a hundred and fifty years later, I maintain that all that sturm und drang makes the paintings that much more alive for me. Knowing what was going on near that waterfall in Glenfinlas makes Ruskin's portrait by Millais that much more interesting and vibrant.

    I'm rambling, because it's late, but hopefully this all made sense!

  10. Thank you everyone! What a marvellous lot of comments and it has given me so much more to think about! I agree that the attention to biographic detail does lend something extra to the work, I definitely agree about the Ruskin Waterfall portrait, it adds such depth to the whole set up to know the back story. I wonder if there are degrees of what I want to know, for example it seems I don't mind infidelity and grave robbing (Rossetti), but can't abide anything involving children, and go into complete denial. I agonised about that damn Carroll picture, but why?! Is it because the modern construct of childhood places certain value systems upon me that didn't exist in the 19th century so the image meant something utterly different to them?

    I also wonder, on a slightly trivial note, whether we forgive good-looking gentlemen a lot more than we do the ugly ones. If Ruskin had been hot, maybe we wouldn't be forming a mob...

  11. The more I know about an artist, the more it helps me to understand some paintings. My short experience in Art History graduate school didn't agree with me because of accepted mode of critiquing art was to pull it out of it's context and apply modern interpretations instead of learning about the artist's life and why they painted it.

    Of a lot of times I do just like to look at pretty paintings, but the little bits trivia make them more interesting.

    As an artist I sometimes get a little offended at how people interpret art they haven't researched. Sometimes an artist literally just wants to paint a pretty picture. Really.

  12. Ah! No! We must interpret everything to suit our own opinion! I agree, sometimes an artist or a writer just writes something and it isn't as deep as we'd like it to be. Mr Walker gets horribly wound up by 'Death of the Author' interpretation - how dare someone think they know more about a work of art or a book than the person who created it!

  13. Great debate - that's what I really like about this blog. It's hard but we do have to try to remember the context and values of the time an artist lives and works in - and be prepared to not judge them so harshly that we can no longer appreciate their work, whether it is Michael Jackson or John Ruskin.

  14. Kirsty,
    no answers about Carroll but this page was pointed out to me:

    (Turtle Doves)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx