Separating Artists from their Art

The Arts


In my interview with Salman Rushdie, I ask a deceptively simple question: can you separate the artist from the art? That is, can one fully experience the wonder (or tasteless aesthetics) of a work of art without knowing anything about the artist? Or, knowing full well the character, history, ideology, and personality of the artist, can you segregate this knowledge from your psyche while you indulge in the painting, the book, the stage drama, etc.?


Here is a snippet of my conversation with Mr. Rushdie:



S. Randol: Do you think you can separate the artist from art? Is that possible?


S. Rushdie: Yes, I believe so. In our time, we have become too interested in the artist and his or her character and experience as a way of understanding art. In my view, you should be able to read a book or see a film without knowing a single thing about conditions or circumstances or character of the artist, and experience the work to the full without such information. Sometimes I feel — speaking for myself — that people know much too much about me, and I wish people knew less and could just read these books and respond to them purely as words on a page.


I think it can be done, but we live in an age in which it is hard to do it, in which the issue of personality has become very central to the way we discuss works of art. I don’t think it’s always such a good thing.



S. Randol: I’ve been thinking about that question lately because it was recently revealed the artist Charles Krafft, whose  beautiful porcelain art often features Nazi elements, is a Holocaust denier. Should this color our perception of his product?


S. Rushdie: It’s difficult not to. There are so many examples of this. What do we think of Ezra Pound — clearly a great poet and clearly kind of an asshole? You can say the same thing about Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who clearly was a Nazi sympathizer, and yet one of the great writers of the 20th century. It is tough, but there are enough examples around where we have to somehow find a way of separating the work from the artist and seeing what there is to see in the work, while also condemning the thoughts we see in the man.


[Read the entire interview on the Los Angeles Review of Books]


The question of being able to separate the artist from the art is also top of mind, thanks to the e-mail hack that resulted in the publication of portraits by former president George W. Bush. Many ridiculed the man's art while others praised it, but very few critics (if any) were able to write about the artistic output without considering the man's political record, including his handling, bungling, and mismanagement of the economy, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the environment, and so on.


This blog post is an initial foray into the question of separating artists from art. In a future feature essay, I'll tackle the issue head on, using Bush—the artist, not the politician—as my main subject. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts on the subject.


Salman Rushdie, Charles Krafft