Artists' Personal Lives: Does it Play a Role in How You View Their Art?
by Brian Sherwin
This article is by Brian Sherwin , Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
I was recently involved in a debate concerning the fact that many people appear to make value judgments on art based on knowledge of the artist's personality, beliefs, and life choices. In other words, someone may or may not view a work of art in a positive manner based strictly on what he or she knows about the personal life of the artist behind the artwork. It spurs me to ask, does the personal life of an artist play a factor in how you view his or her artwork for better or for worse? Sometimes it does seem that people critique art solely on what they know about the artist in question instead of focusing on the art itself.
As I stated within the context of the debate I was involved with-- this can even be broken down with famous artists-- for example, many fans of Frida Kahlo note that knowledge of her personal life impacts how they view her art. The same can be said-- for better or worse-- concerning Pablo Picasso and knowledge of the volatile relationships he had. On that note, those who enjoy Mark Rothko's paintings often know details of the hardships he endured-- would people experience strong emotion before his paintings if they were not aware of his struggles and suicide? With that in mind, should art speak for itself-- or can the voice of art, so to speak, be strengthened or weakened by details of the personal life of the artist behind the artwork? This is an issue I feel deserves to be explored by any art admirer.
I can recall a project that I was involved with while taking a college level psychology class that explored this issue. We showed a group of people images of art without saying who the artist behind the artwork was. I recall that we had to make sure that the people involved did not recognize the artist's work. The two artists that stick out in memory happened to be Adolf Hitler and John Lennon-- two names that need no introduction for very different reasons. The goal was simply to see how people reacted with their art criticism after finding out who created the art.
Those who observed Adolf Hitler’s artwork before knowing he was behind the creation of those images were impressed by it-- noting a strong sense of architecture and space. Those who observed John Lennon’s artwork before knowing he was behind the creation of those images were not very impressed at all-- most asking if they were drawings by a child. In fact, I recall that a few individuals doodled quick sketches mocking the examples of Lennon's art that were shown. At that point they were not aware of who created the images.
After showing the work and documenting the views that everyone had we revealed the artists name in connection to the examples of images shown. We then followed up on the study a week later. At that point when Adolf Hitler’s artwork was shown people tended to mock it and mention how it was technically flawed and mediocre as a whole-- completely opposite of what they had said before. When John Lennon’s artwork was shown again people tended to suggest that his works displayed a strong use of line and mastery of gesture drawing-- Lennon went from being viewed as a ‘bad artist‘ to being viewed as highly creative just because his name-- and thus all that is attributed to it-- was revealed. Those who forgot the names of the artists after a week tended to stick with their original statement-- and criticism-- concerning the images.
It was an interesting psychological study to say the least-- I would go as far as to say that it revealed how personality, or the actions of an individual, can influence how people view their art. Prior to knowing the names behind the artwork it is safe to say that a few individuals may have enjoyed Adolf Hitler’s artwork long-term while continuing to mock John Lennon’s artwork. Once the names were revealed-- and thus everything those names represent brought to the table-- people changed their value judgment of the artwork shown. It forces me to wonder how often we do that with other artists.
In closing, I’m not going to suggest whether it is acceptable or not to place value of artwork strictly by what we know about an artists personality and life. That said, the role of knowing said information is obviously an important aspect of how we take in, so to speak, art that is viewed. It leaves me to wonder if the power of art is found in the personality and life choices-- both that of the artist and of the viewer-- or within the image itself. Perhaps it is a meshing of both? Consider this food for thought.
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