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Can You Separate the Artist from the Art?

A museum acknowledges an artist it features was a serial sexual abuser its very rare for
the art world to put work in this context, writes Fisun Gner.

By Fisun Gner
12 June 2017
Just how true is the following statement: an artists work should have value in its own right, no
matter what sort of life the artist led, and even if they have damaged or hurt others? Perhaps we
might put the answer on a sliding scale, for dont we as a culture, hold it to be true when it comes
to some artists, but not others?

Tate Britains current Queer British Art exhibition, which includes the work of the writer and
collagist Kenneth Halliwell, is just one of a recent spate of exhibitions and film screenings that
might prompt you to ask this question afresh. In 1967, in the tiny one-room flat the couple shared
in north London, Halliwell bludgeoned his partner, the playwright Joe Orton, to death, before
ending his own life. Clinically depressed, isolated and increasingly fearful of losing Orton, who
was clearly tiring of him by then, he finally, as were pithily inclined to put it, snapped. Halliwell
left a suicide note simply saying all would be explained in Ortons diaries, especially the latter
part.

The murder of Joe Orton by the artist Kenneth Halliwell was dramatised by Stephen Frears in the 1987
film Prick Up Your Ears (Credit: Alamy)
Halliwell is generally viewed sympathetically by writers and filmmakers whove documented his
and Ortons life together. The inclusion of one of Halliwells solo collages at Tate Britain appears
to have invited no controversy at all. In fact, its Ortons behaviour thats hinted as being selfish
or cruelly off-hand, and were often reminded both of Ortons promiscuity and his rapid success
as factors in driving Halliwell to such a desperate action. Were given mitigating psychological
complexities that arent always afforded when terrible crimes are committed, but I also wonder if,
at its heart, theres an unstated sense here of Ortons culpability in his own murder.

Clearly its tempting to ask, would this be the case had Orton been female? Its interesting to
ponder how differently institutions today might view the power dynamics if that relationship had
been a heterosexual one; how eager might they be to establish Halliwell as an artist in his own
right alongside his female victim?

Outline of a dispute
One artist whose work is of far greater importance than Halliwells is the minimalist sculptor Carl
Andre. He is still alive and has never been short of major museum shows. Andre was married to
the artist Ana Mendieta until her death in 1985, in what many still regard as suspicious
circumstances. Mendieta fell to her death from the couples high-rise apartment in New York,
and in 1988 Andre was acquitted of second-degree murder.

Artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from the 34th floor of her New York apartment in 1985 her
husband Carl Andre was charged with her murder, then acquitted (Credit: Mendieta)
But despite the acquittal, Andres exhibitions have been dogged by protests by feminist activists
and fellow artists. One performative protest saw demonstrators pour and smear red paint outside
a gallery where his work was being shown. This was both an homage to Mendietas powerful
performances in which she smeared herself and her surroundings with blood and a reminder of
the violence of her death. And just last month, those attending a private view of Andres current
show at the Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles an outline of the Museum of Contemporary
Art (Moca) were greeted with a carpet of fabric laid at the museums entrance, on which rows
of candles were placed and where outlines of bodies had been painted. Once again this was
strongly reminiscent of the ritualistic aspects of Mendietas own body-imprint earth works, as well
as a an imitation of police forensics. In addition, postcards were handed out with an image of
Mendieta accompanied by the text: Carl Andre is at Moca Geffen. Dnde est Ana Mendieta?
(Where is Ana Mendieta?).

The protests make very clear how art and an artists biography arent easily separated

These performative protests manage to go beyond the question of Andres guilt or innocence to
address the very art institutes whose values theyre holding up to question. They demonstrate a
gathering disquiet and sensitivity around the way Mendietas work was long neglected after her
death, in contrast to the way Andres work continued to be lauded without so much as a blink.

Eric Gills prints, sculptures and reliefs helped define the Art Deco style his Prospero and
Ariel from 1932 adorns the front of the BBCs Broadcasting House (Credit: Alamy)

The protests also make very clear how art and an artists biography arent so easily separated.
How we negotiate the two can be quite complex, particularly if its an artist that the
establishment culture has long invested in and simply cant afford to sacrifice as a valued
commodity. Mendieta was, for a long time, simply dispensable to a culture clearly not invested
in art by women.

Putting in context
One institution that has been prepared to ask how an artists life does indeed affect the way we
receive the work, is the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. This small museum in East Sussex
in the south of England is dedicated to the work of the 20th Century sculptor, typeface designer
and printmaker Eric Gill and his circle. Gills life as a serial sexual abuser of his two pubescent
daughters was first documented in Fiona MacCarthys 1989 biography of the artist, as was his
incestuous relationship with his sister.

Is it just because Caravaggio committed his murder centuries ago we absolve him?

But although this information has been in the public realm for almost 30 years no previous
exhibition of the artists work has confronted it, seeing it as neither necessary nor relevant.
However, it seems clear that curators shy away from biography only when its perceived to be
too problematic, since any inclusion will almost inevitably demand more than a cursory mention
unless, of course, the artist has been dead too long for us to be fazed. Just think, for
instance, how many times Caravaggio, a known murderer and rumoured pederast, is
mentioned when defending the principle of separating the artist from their work.

Part of the Arts and Crafts movement, Gill became quite experimental such as carving this
outline of a crocodile into the Mond Laboratorys wall at Cambridge (Credit: Alamy)
When the Ditchling Museum re-opened in 2013 after a major refurbishment, none of Gills
abuses were addressed, though of course anyone who knew about them couldnt help but be
reminded when confronted by, for instance, a sensual and intimate drawing of his young
daughter Petra in the bath. What you saw was altered by what you knew.

None of that demands that the work be censored. But context probably does matter. Gill carved
many monuments and relief sculptures throughout his life, including the figures of Prospero
and Ariel on the exterior of the BBCs old Broadcasting House headquarters. He was also a
practicing Catholic, and carved religious icons and altarpieces for churches and cathedrals
throughout the UK, including his impressive Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral.
When MacCarthys book came out, there was a concerted campaign to rid the cathedral of this
celebrated work. One might imagine the mixed feelings of some worshippers when confronted
with these inappropriate holy images, which are there, after all, to offer moral guidance,
sustenance and solace. But it seems most have now come to terms with these works.

Does time absolve an artist of his or her crimes? Caravaggio was a murderer and a likely pederast,
and yet that just makes him seem like a bad boy for many (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Ditchling museum itself has now had a radical rethink: central to their current
exhibition, Eric Gill: The Body, is the question of how knowledge of Gills abusive behaviour
affects our impressions of his work, some of which is sexually and anatomically explicit. When
organising the exhibition, the museum took advice from several charities who work with sexual
abuse survivors.
Gill died in 1940, but we think today of others in the public eye and the continued controversy
that surrounds them. Film directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen come to mind and the
utterly polarised reactions they both elicit, though both continue to work as productively as
ever.

And of course, its never just about the work. What we do when we celebrate an artist is often
to bolster the myth of their life. We do this with Caravaggio exactly because were fascinated by
his earthy and seductive bad boy image. That roughness and that sexuality makes him feel
alive to us and incredibly modern, as alive as the figures in his paintings. And we do this with
Oscar Wilde, who we celebrate today for exactly those things that ensured his condemnation in
life.