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This article was published 26/2/2018 (1542 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Recently, an exhibition of works by American artist Chuck Close at Washington’s National Gallery of Art was indefinitely postponed. The decision was made following public allegations that Close has engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour toward women in his studio, including making crude and intrusive comments and actions.
Close, known for large-scale, up-close portraits that hang in many major collections, later issued a (sort of) apology in an interview with the New York Times. "Last time I looked, discomfort was not a major offence," he said. "I never reduced anyone to tears, no one ever ran out of the place. If I embarrassed anyone or made them feel uncomfortable, I am truly sorry, I didn’t mean to. I acknowledge having a dirty mouth, but we’re all adults."
With the hot-button discussions surrounding the closure of Close’s show, it seems as if the powerful #MeToo movement, which has been changing conversations in the film, music and theatre worlds, is now coming for visual art.
When I first started chatting with artist, curator and writer Cliff Eyland about the First Fridays Art Talk on March 2, we were planning to discuss the notion of artistic taste — why we like the art we like.
But in the current climate, this inevitably led to talk about the artists who make that art, and the sometimes tricky juncture between artists’ lives and their work. "Lately we’ve gotten into an obsession about the people who make the art," Eyland points out, a focus that raises some knotty questions, whether that’s dealing with French impressionist Edgar Degas’s virulent anti-Semitism or modernist icon Pablo Picasso’s terrible treatment of women.
Artist bios have always grabbed attention, from the Renaissance image of the divine genius to the romantic ideal of the suffering artist. "The romance of Van Gogh, of Frida Kahlo," Eyland notes, can sometimes overshadow the work itself.
In particular, myths around the self-destructive, dangerous artist have often granted an aura of glamour to all kinds of bad behaviour. That’s an outlook that might be changing right now.
"If we make personality cults of artists — and this usually happens with an artist’s full participation — then we should expect questions about artists’ lives," the 63-year-old Winnipeg-based Eyland believes.
"I can foresee artists becoming less public or at least more circumspect about their transgressions in future, the way doctors and lawyers are now. Artists will become sneakier hypocrites than they may have been in the past."
In the past, certain kinds of behaviour were taken for granted, partly because of power imbalances revolving around gender. Artists were generally male, and women were often mistreated models, exalted muses or examples of what Eyland calls "the art wife," a woman who took care of every detail of daily drudgery so her husband was free to create. It seems as if "neglect of the family and exploitation were par for the course for artists," Eyland states.
In past decades, there have been changes. To start with, "women started becoming artists, rather than wives of artists," Eyland points out. But the structures of the art world and the ways we talk about artists and art are still evolving.
As #MeToo hits the art world, we’re starting to question how we assess the relationship between an artist’s bio and an artist’s work. Can these things be separated? Should they be separated? Do we risk becoming overly reductive with the artworks themselves, which — whatever the circumstances of their origins or the character of their creators — have complicated lives of their own?
Take the art of Picasso, who bullied and traumatized the women in his life and was "objectively horrible to his children," Eyland says. One still has to deal with the profound and reaching influence of his work.
"The issue with Picasso is that he was so revolutionary," Eyland admits.
"But you could also say this: Picasso’s co-partner and equal in cubism, Georges Braque, was never like that," he contends.
"He was a lovely guy."
Alison Gillmor will be chatting with artist, curator and art writer Cliff Eyland about the connection between an artist’s bio and an artist’s work at this Friday’s Art Talk at the Free Press News Café at 6 p.m. Call 204-421-0682 or email email@example.com to reserve tickets, which include dinner and cost $20.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.