Can you Separate a Creator from their Works? Yes.

Nikolaus Kennelly, Columnist

In a very real sense, works of art are dead. Like Lenin’s corpse, they lie entombed in great mausoleums, a mixture of noxious preservatives serving as a kind of quasi-life support system. Except here, unlike in the case of the dying patient, the life support system serves us—the patient’s family, admirers, lovers. Its purpose is simple: freeze time and make us believe that the patient is only now on the cusp of death (or in the case of Beethoven’s Ninth, recreate an experience that happened 200 years ago). We are motivated in part by the belief that Lenin’s corpse, like the great baroque painting, is missing something essential to its nature: its soul. We believe that without that essential thing it will lose its value, becoming no different than the rocks and valleys and the deep void of space.

This view is flawed. It pretends that the humanity of the viewer should be subordinated to that of the artist. It forces us to believe that artworks are like feeding tubes rather than mirrors. But this isn’t how the process works. Instead, when we look at a piece of art, our own humanities—our pains, joys, sorrows and delights—are reflected back onto us. If your humanity is full, your reflection will seem fuller. If, on the other hand, your humanity is empty, all you’ll see is void. It doesn’t matter if the artist is alive or dead, and consequentially, it doesn’t even matter who the artist is.

Can you imagine the alternative to this view? A world where Gauguin’s abandonment of his family somehow impacted the meaning—and dare I say, value—of his artworks? Can you imagine how empty the museums would be if an artist’s immoral deeds rendered her sketches, paintings and writings immoral? Would works by artists of dubious moral standing—artists like Caravaggio, Dostoevsky, Schiele, Picasso, etc.—be seen as corruptive simply because of their creators? The answer, were we to give the holders of this view even the slightest bit of leeway, would seem to be in the affirmative.

There is, of course, a way for these sorts of blacklists to occur even when we stop reading artists into their artworks. They come in the form of economic boycotts, but they require the artist (or her estate) to still be around in order to hold ground. They go roughly like this: Because the artist or her estate gains revenue from my consumption of her art, if I find the artist’s actions reprehensible, I have a reason to avoid consuming said artist’s works. I can’t really contest this in the same way that I can contest so-called “social capital,” except maybe to advocate piracy in those situations.

To sum up, I’m advocating for a shift in how we normally view artworks. Instead of valuing them because of their connection to an artist, we should value them for what they can tell us about ourselves. This means recognizing two things: first, great works of art are dead until we resurrect them. And second, the value of a work of art depends entirely on our own humanities. Finally, under this framework, the only time boycotting makes sense is when there’s a monetary connection between an artist and her works.