Why We Still Romanticize Artists Who Behaved Terribly

Tom Rachman
May 15, 2018 7:47PM

To be great in the arts, must one be appalling at home?

The works of Pablo Picasso “demanded human sacrifices,” his granddaughter Marina wrote in a memoir. “No one in my family managed to escape [from his] stranglehold.…He needed blood to sign each of his paintings.”

Or consider Lucian Freud, known for portraits of melancholy and isolation, who was himself the cause of much melancholy and isolation beyond the canvases, siring at least 14 children and troubling himself little with their lives. One daughter, Lucy, told a British newspaper of her attempts to connect with the great man: “I invited him to my wedding because I thought, he’s a father, even though he wasn’t a Dad.” Freud didn’t even respond.

It’s not just painters—ask those who’ve lived among filmmakers, musicians, and authors. The greats are not always destructive egotists, but a striking number have been. Which raises an uneasy question: Could behaving horrendously make the art better?

Terry Richardson
Failing Upwards, 2015

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the sexual misconduct exposed in recent months has the slightest role in outstanding work; such cases are about abusing power, never the pursuit of art. What I am suggesting is that repellent behavior plays a key role in our culture.

Some link the unhinged mind to creativity, as if chaotic living might be evidence of a gift. But chaos doesn’t make for great art. Rather, it sells the artist as great.

The wildman is what we devour in artist bios, much as we admire mafiosi on-screen. We who submit to the rules of society, repressing natural selfishness, view outlaws with a shiver of admiration. They enact our fantasies, scoffing at rules, earning respect nonetheless. Nobody relishes a well-behaved artist.

Another advantage to grim personal behavior is that, sadly, it can help production—compelling a spouse to raise the kids, or using those kids to absorb one’s moods, or merely dismissing all who fail to serve one’s interests. Male artists have raged and spewed this way for centuries, grinding their darlings into material. It’s one reason why women have rarely been included among the artistic greats: They were never granted such moral immunity.

Of course, ruthless types blemish the upper ranks of any competitive field, whether it’s politics or academia or business. But in such professions, savage egotists are disdained if their private cruelties are exposed. This has not been so for the cultural world. Its devils become our secular saints.

Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin, ca. 1885. Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images.

Yousuf Karsh
Pablo Picasso, 1954
A Gallery for Fine Photography

Just consider the language we use when discussing artistic greats: A cultural icon follows a vision, finds a voice, makes a path despite discouragement from lesser minds—then is proven right (resurrected) by posterity. But anyone who has observed many serious artists at work can attest that it’s less about righteous inspiration and more about dogged labor. Also, those making creative works do care what others think, mightily so. Or why battle for a job whose essence is communicating to strangers? The truly indifferent wouldn’t show their work. Which means you’ll never hear of them.

The industries of culture have a stake in perpetuating artistic myths because an idol is invaluable for marketing. It’s diabolically hard to sell a cultural product on its merits alone. Look around: Nearly all arts publicity is backstory. About the maker. About a work’s origin. About anything except that which was intended to speak for itself.

We’re willing to admit that, in our own times, cultural glory may be won due to petty considerations: patronage, personal attractiveness, a genius for friendship, where you’re born, which class you’re born into. Yet we cling to a weird faith that the best work ultimately find its rightful place.

Beatniks in London, 1969. Photo by KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Chuck Close
Self-Portrait, 2000
Contessa Gallery

But why? By what miracle should later generations gain a clarity of judgment that escapes our own? Yes, they’ll be free of our fads—but they’ll have fads of their own. And the range of work available for evaluation in museums, bookstores, and concert halls is already vastly culled by the malarkey that posterity is supposed to see beyond. Yet we prefer happy endings, so work backward till we find one.

Culture—a province in awe of the genuine—contains so much falsity. And the history of its bunkum is centuries old.

Since culture has been around far longer than note-taking, one can only speculate how prehistoric humans viewed their artistic cohorts. We do know that early objects were venerated and used in sacred rites, so perhaps their makers were considered magical. During classical antiquity, poets were extolled, but visual artists occupied a lowly station. “One venerates the divine images, one may pray and sacrifice to them,” the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “yet one despises the sculptors who made them.”

By the Renaissance, however, everything was changing. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550, retailed yarns about prodigies already brilliant from childhood, as if bestowed from above, able to draw a fly of such realism that oafs kept swatting it away. Vasari salted his mini-bios with gossip: Michelangelo gets biffed in the nose by a rival; Piero di Cosimo is a kooky recluse who survives on boiled eggs; Raphael drops dead after a bout of vigorous sex. The tales are also riddled with errors. That, too, set a standard.

Another twist came in the early 1800s, a time when artists in France often resided in poor neighborhoods inhabited by Romani people—also known (pejoratively) as gypsies—who were associated with animal passions, sexual libertinism, and a supposed national origin in the Czech state of Bohemia. All of this was bogus. But the lusty legends radiated through the arts, making squalid struggle and ultimate recognition the defining fairytale of culture.

Centuries on, bohemian fantasies haven’t left us. Every other generation seems to rediscover them, from the writing-painting-boozing expats of Paris in the ’20s, through the Beat poets after World War II, to the entire hippie era, to grunge in the ’90s, and so on.

Before the #MeToo movement, nearly the only sins that justified expulsion from cultural consideration were Nazism or pedophilia (with the latter holding considerably less damning power). The weary old question was: Can we still admire a work after discovering the truth about its maker’s personality? But a reverse question is better posed: Have we been loving cultural works partly because of the maker’s personality?

The #MeToo movement has pledged to transform the arts, and is already curbing disgraceful behavior. Yet we remain far from honest about what makes culture and whom we judge great, and why. All this falsehood, however, illuminates one enduring truth: Art still holds such a vital role for us that we’ll deceive ourselves to believe in it.

Tom Rachman
Tom Rachman is the author of "The Italian Teacher," a new novel set in the art world.