Valerie Pavilonis

Anyone who has seen Chuck Close’s paintings can tell they are the work of a master. His massive scale portraits are models of hyper-realism, intricately laid out with photo-like detail. Two of the more famous portraits, “Mark” and “Lucas”, are displayed in the modern and contemporary gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The first time I saw them, I thought the former was a photograph. The detail in the face of the middle-aged man is flawless, leaving the viewer wondering why on earth the artist would not just take a photo. The “Lucas” portrait is less realistic while being even more visually acute, made up of colored dots that mimic the effect of pixels. Yet “Lucas” is, as I overheard a tour guide explain, an even more impressive piece of art, created shortly after Close became paralyzed. Without the use of most of his body, Close taped a paintbrush to his wrist and created a masterpiece that most able-bodied artists could never hope to make.

Close’s paintings were set to be displayed May of 2018 in a private show at the National Gallery of Art, the venerable museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC. A few months before the gallery was to open, though, the Times published a report recounting allegations against Close of sexual misconduct. Several women, the article recounted, said Close invited them to his studio to professionally pose for him. He then harassed them, speaking crudely about their bodies and telling one woman her vagina “looked delicious” while asking another to masturbate in front of him. The scandal provoked uproar in the art community, causing museums everywhere to contemplate what to do with their formerly prized pieces of this suddenly tainted artist. The National Gallery kept some of his paintings on display in its main exhibition space, but cancelled his private show.

 The art world is no stranger to allegations of sexual misconduct. In the era of the #MeToo movement, such allegations have taken on almost overwhelming power and can now make or break an artist’s career. The movement has used the wide influence of the digital universe to isolate and shame those who have been #MeToo’d. This, combined with today’s culture of political correctness, has made it socially unacceptable to exalt a perpetrator. The art of a perpetrator, therefore, has become controversial, the verdict unclear as to whether appreciating their art is the same as supporting the wrongful artist. This dilemma has caused morality and art to bleed into one another, provoking the question: What do we do with good art made by bad people?

One option, which the University of Seattle took with Close’s portraits, is to take down the artworks and attempt to remove them from the artistic canon. While this cleanses a museum of morally contaminated works, it should be called by its true name: censorship. The history of art is riddled with artworks made by immoral people, yet whose style and achievements as artists have dramatically altered the world’s understanding of art. Had their art been tossed aside because of their sins, art today would surely be less than they are. 

Anyone who knows the story of Picasso knows he was a monster. He was a raging misogynist who called women “machines for suffering.” He had affairs with and emotionally abused a series of women throughout his life, two of them whom eventually committed suicide apparently because of his abuse. His artwork, however, was largely responsible for the birth of Cubism, the artistic movement that forged a new approach for representing reality. The interlocking shapes and geometric aspects of the art form appeared in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the first Cubist painting.

 Degas, a painter known best for his warm and elegant representations of dancers, was an intense and vocal anti-Semite. He threw a model out of his studio screaming that she was Jewish (she was Protestant). After the Dreyfus affair, when a Jewish general in the French army was falsely accused of giving information to France’s German enemies, Degas ended all relationships with his Jewish friends, no matter how close they had been. His art, on the other hand, was revolutionary. He founded, along with Monet and Renoir, arguably the most beautiful of the art movements: Impressionism.

Take away Picasso and Degas because of their wrongdoings and art would have been changed indisputably for the worse. Gaping holes would appear in the evolutionary timeline of art, leaving Cubism and Impressionism robbed. 

The influence of these artists extends well past the foundations of movements. Some of the most revered modern artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jackson Pollock had important echoes of Picasso’s style throughout their work. The elimination of just one artist could markedly deprive the art of generations of artists to come. By removing the artworks of someone such as Close today, who knows how many artists will be impeded in the future? The loss of this art punishes not only the unethical artist, but the world of art and its fortunate consumers for years to come.

 The consequences are made worse by the sheer number of immoral characters who fill the artistic canon. As we have seen, it is often some of the worst people who make some of the best art. With Picasso and Degas, there is Benvenuto Cellini, the rapist and sculptor; Egon Schiele, the teenage girl abuser and artist; Michelangelo Caravaggio, the murderer and Renaissance painter; and a plethora of other terrible yet remarkable characters who revolutionized art.

 Instead of censoring the artwork, we should learn to separate the artist from the art. A person is “good” or “bad” based on their morality. Rather than goodness or badness, the quality of art relies usually on aesthetics, to which morality is not relevant. And when a work of art is considered to convey a sense of morals, it is still the artwork that delivers this message, not the artist. Picasso’s “Guernica” is a powerful anti-war piece that depicts the sufferings war inflicts on individuals. This painting stands as an embodiment of peace, a message that can be interpreted detached from Picasso. 

 Art has the ability to stand alone. One can look at a piece of art and know, without knowing who the artist is, whether it is of high quality. This anonymity makes it unnecessary and even foolish to consider the art and artist eternally tethered. This would be much like dismissing the use of a conveyor belt since its inventor, Henry Ford, was a supporter of Hitler. The invention, or the art work, once created is strictly that.

 The morality of appreciating these artworks could be justifiably questioned only when money is exchanged. Afterall, no harm comes from looking at a piece of art, but financing a criminal is a different story. As a mere museum goer and not a buyer of art, I digress.

 Acknowledging the artist’s wrongdoings is another matter. Let the art remain up and let the world benefit from it. The artist’s behavior should be made transparent and they should be held accountable for their actions. The person themself should be punished, but the art, which can stand alone from the artist, should not be censored. 

 Close’s show was about Close’s art, not Close the man, two identities that should be kept separate for the sake of art. If one wishes to distance themselves from his art, that is their choice. When another great artist’s wrongdoings are revealed, as will inevitably happen, that will not stop me from taking in what could be another break-through in the long, impure and revolutionary arc of art history.

Kaitlin Flores | kaitlin.flores@yale.edu