Bad Art

There’s a family story that we like to laugh about over wine when my two sisters and mom and I get together, and it goes like this: the youngest of us, Rainee, was about eight years old. We were walking through a department store when she stopped at a rack of Sunday hats. Donning a black, veiled number, she batted her eyelashes precociously in the mirror and exclaimed in her best Scarlett O’Hara drawl, “I’m too young to be a widow!” 

In our household of three daughters, Scarlett O’Hara was a major figure. Divided between two VHS tapes on the lower shelf of our TV stand was Gone With the Wind, a film we watched with cultish devotion. Between actress Vivien Leigh’s fabulous costume changes and her miraculous side-eye, I took Scarlett as a model of spectacular womanhood and a fascinating example of a heroine who was unconcerned with her own likeability (although I wouldn’t have known how to articulate that at the time). Unfortunately it wasn’t until years later, looking back on the way the movie romanticized a Southern “way of life” based entirely on the forced labor of enslaved people, that I looked back with horror on that famous film. I was embarrassed to have been so entranced by Scarlett’s wiles that I overlooked that “small” issue. 

Claire Partington, Taking Tea, Seattle Art Museum installation view. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

If we are thinking people, we should always be looking back at the art that we have loved with a critical eye, especially if that art was formative. What problematic art always needs is context, not necessarily to be immediately tossed in the trash can. (Although undoubtedly my mother has long ago relinquished those VHS copies to the garbage.) Thinking critically about the art that we have loved can tell us something about who we once were. It can keep us honest about our own blindnesses and hone our perspectives on the art that shapes us today.  

Claire Partington, Taking Tea. Seattle Art Museum installation view. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

We are in the midst of a culture-wide discussion on what to do with “bad” art–the art that has ended up on the wrong side of history through cultural or societal evolution, or the art that is being reconsidered because it was made by less-than-admirable people. (Here I add apologies for the shorthand, as this “evolution” was achieved not through the mere passage of time like the term might suggest, but rather through hard-won and painful sacrifice.) Examples of our current cultural conversation include everything from the removal of confederate monuments (inhabiting some of the same romanticizing tendencies as Scarlett and Rhett), to the films of such predators as Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen. There’s a #banrkelly movement dedicated to ensuring that the allegedly abusive singer’s music is no longer given any radio play. 

Claire Partington, Taking Tea. Detail view. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

This can feel like two separate problems: problematic art and problematic people who make art, but these vitally important discussions are in fact two sides of the same coin. Art connects us to our humanity, and it can be painful when something we have connected with on such a personal level turns out to have been made by someone whose actions display inhumanity and cruelty. We feel betrayed. Similarly, (like I did with Gone With the Wind) we can fall in love with a work of art without understanding its full import. This second problem can feel like an easier fix. Following in the wisdom of Maya Angelou, you simply “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” The issues of that kind of art, the art we grow out of as our culture evolves, can be nullified by a proper contextual framework. Fred Williams’ Mining the Museum is an example of how this can be brilliantly executed. A similarly context-providing installation by Claire Partington entitled Taking Tea at The Seattle Art Museum creates a stunning dialogue between the historical ‘porcelain room’ and our modern attempt to reckon with the colonialism and institutional racism that necessitated the creation of these beautiful objects. I can imagine ways in which confederate statues, recontextualized by more and better art around them, could be stripped of their power as Jim Crow era idols and given a new message. A common argument by those who defend these monuments is that removing them “erases history.” While the history that many of those defenders would like to recall is a false story of Confederate glory, I would argue that it might serve us well to remember the real history of Jim Crow authoritarianism and its enforcement through public art.

Scrap-heaping these objects indiscriminately doesn’t allow for them to gain their proper context. Additionally, it’s important to understand that these touchstone works of art provide generative material for artists who are utilizing them as vehicles for newer messages. Yet another excellent example is the work of photographer Genevieve Gagnard, who does this beautifully in her self-portraits. One of them features the biracial artist as a southern belle, forcing a new understanding of who has the right to the legacy of the “south” and what uncomfortable truths (here namely the rape and sexual coercion of enslaved women) might have authored those claims. 

The other issue, the problem of disappointing and even criminal artists, is a faster-acting form of poison in this murky water, one which leaves us reeling with its rapid precipitation. Is the art that moved us still worthwhile if its creator is revealed to be morally bankrupt? The quieter, implicit question here is: does the fact that we liked such art in the first place reveal us to be morally bankrupt? Is there a way to comfortably separate the artist from the artwork, therefore preserving the thing that we loved, unscathed? These are the wrong questions to ask. Crimes of the ilk of R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein, or creeps like Louis CK are of course massively damaging to their victims, but we almost never think of the further harm caused by these criminals’ suppression of other artists. Many of the victims were themselves artists or aspiring artists who gave up their life’s work in the wake of their encounter with a predator. It’s impossible to answer the question of separating a loathsome artist from a beloved artwork, but here’s a suggestion that might work: lift up the artists that were sidelined by these abusers. In both instances, more art is the answer-art to drown out or dampen the toxic messages or toxic creators that have polluted this most human of our endeavors. If there’s any place in our society to work out these thorny issues, it’s within the relative safety and endless possibilities of our creative expression.

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