What responsibilities do galleries have when they display work by monstrous creators?by Daniel Callcut / October 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
On 11th October I appeared on a panel at the National Gallery to discuss questions of art and morality in relation to Paul Gauguin’s life and work. The gallery’s major new exhibition of Gauguin’s portraits rightly raises ethical questions with a now familiar ring. What should we say about Gauguin’s art in light of his despicable personal behaviour? What responsibilities do galleries have when they display the creations of artists who behaved in ways that are now criminal? Should we hold artists to the same moral standards as the rest of us?
Artists often take risks, including moral risks, in pursuit of their art. The novelist James Joyce asked his wife—the wonderfully named Nora Barnacle—if she would go with another man so that he could experience what infidelity felt like. Joyce wanted Barnacle to be unfaithful so that he could better imagine the life of Leopold Bloom, the main character of his work-in-progress Ulysses. This was a strange request, and undoubtedly fraught with dangers, but not obviously morally wrong. Gauguin’s decision to leave for Tahiti in pursuit of artistic greatness is another story.
Gauguin thought that painting in Polynesia would lead him to a new kind of art. He was right, but the life he felt he had to live to achieve this art is deeply morally troubling. He thought of himself as a kind of “noble savage” whose wild nature was essential to his creativity. He slept with—and no doubt gave syphilis to—girls on the island of Tahiti as young as 13. What’s more, as art critic Carolyn Stewart has highlighted, his own writings express the attitude that Tahitian girls ought to be raped and beaten.
One of the defining features of morality, argued philosopher Immanuel Kant, is that one does not make special exceptions for oneself. Creative people, however, at least until very recently, have been encouraged to think of themselves as extraordinary individuals to whom normal moral rules don’t apply. “I’m special, so special,” as Chrissie Hynde memorably sang in Brass in Pocket, a song which might be considered an artists’ anthem.
British philosopher Bernard Williams argued that artists such as Gauguin were morally lucky in that their aesthetic achievements redeemed choices that for the rest of us would have no justification at all. There’s no doubt that artists have historically been given cultural…