Sexism In The Arts: Should We Seperate The Artist From Their Art? The Cases Of Picasso, Neruda, And Polanski

Laura Contreras Sauquet (she/her) is a final year Politics student from Barcelona, Spain. She is interested in the effects of colonialism and misogyny on the arts, how ideologies affect policy making, and questions of national identities. She enjoys drinking coffee in sunny corners, having long walks around any park in London, and listening to podcasts on feminist literature. 

Trigger warning: depictions of sexual violence, abuse, and rape.

“Bravo, pedophilia!” shouted Adèle Haenel when she left the 45th César Awards after Roman Polanski won the Best Director award. The ongoing question of separating the art from the artist is still unresolved, and new allegations of misogyny on the part of artists have brought the debate back to the table. The cancellation of historically influential artists, or how to act after an artist faces accusations on sexual violence are central questions that require much pondering and discussion.

The debate has been especially prominent among the fields of New Criticism, Postmodernism and New Historicism. Postmodernists and New Critics argue in favour of the separation of the art and the artist: the artist is dead after the work is done. By contrast, New Historicism argues that an artwork is embedded in the context in which they were created, and thus it is impossible to separate the artist from their artwork- doing so would only be counterproductive as it deprives one from fully understanding the piece. Michel Foucault draws on the “author function” to depict the difficulty of separating the art and its creator: “the author is the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning”, meaning that the art exists within its the context of its creation, and the identity – formed in their private and public actions – of the author influences our opinion and comprehension of the piece.

Pablo Picasso, famously known as the avant-garde pioneer of Cubism, has a lesser-known facet regarding his treatment of women – including having kidnapped a mistress and two suicides on his account. His art is misogynistic on various accounts, such as in ‘Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman’ (1933), where he paints a mythologised version of himself as a beast while raping a woman. His sexist mistreatment of women reaches paedophilic extremes, as the preparatory sketches for ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) were finished using a naked young girl nearing puberty, with her legs spread open showing her genitals. These two pieces exemplify how the private sphere of the artist is directly linked with his art, making it difficult and problematic to fully separate the artist from his art.

Despite having such a clear misogynistic and abusive biography of Picasso, our society refuses this view, and maintains he’s the pre-eminence of Cubism and a genius. Picasso defenders should stop seeing his biographical life as a threat to the existence and future of his artwork, and acknowledge the effect of Picasso’s personal life on his art in order to have a deeper understanding of his pieces. An understanding of Picasso’s mistreatment of women doesn’t remove his title of the “avant-garde pioneer of Cubism”; however, one might regard his paintings differently and see them in a different light after gaining insight into his private life, invalidating the argument of separation of the artist from his art. 

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean Nobel prize Laureate, not only has misogynistic poetry objectifying and sexualising women, but has described raping a maid in his memoir – after the woman ignored him, he took “a strong grip on her wrist […] the encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive”. Aside from his repulsive action, his poetry in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair should not and cannot be separated from Neruda as a person. He attempts to justify female objectification and sexualisation through the idea of courtly lovemaking. Neruda illustrates dominance, power and possession, rendering them all as facets of love– his art is misogynistic, and so is Neruda- we cannot regard his poetry without acknowledging who the author is. The issue here isn’t just that Pablo Neruda was a misogynist and sexist in his private life, but that these are largely depicted in his work, and so by acknowledging it and applauding it, one is complicit with the artist’s appalling nature. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair cannot be read as pure, non-toxic love poetry, but as texts based on and written from experiences of an abuser.

That being said, one might ask what we should do after knowing the horrifying actions and motivations of artists’ private lives. With dead artists such as Picasso and Neruda, there’s little in the way of punishments that could be inflicted upon now, other than emphasising what they’ve done and the extent of their wrongdoing; as individuals, we should strive to be conscious of and acknowledge their actions when being consumers of their work. However, with artists that are alive, such as the film director Roman Polanski, it might be rather more complicated.

Polanski was convicted in 1978 in the US after raping a 13-year-old girl, but fled before he could be sentenced. Nonetheless, what cannot- or should not- happen to a convicted person are these: firstly, being categorised as a nominee for a recognised prize, and secondly, becoming winner of said prize, which were exactly what happened in the 2020 César awards. Giving someone like Polanski recognition is very problematic on multiple grounds; it undermines the #MeToo movement in the cinematic industry, and it showcases that an individual who had sexually abused an underage girl is facing no professional nor social punishment, as well as sending a message that coming forward makes no difference, thus discouraging victims to report abuse.

Therefore, I argue that the art should not and cannot be separated from its artist as New Historicists and Foucault say. When an artist’s private life is directly linked with their art, separating their personal experiences only undermines a full and nuanced understanding of the piece. Moreover, when the art is misogynistic and sexist, along with the personal actions that influenced it, ignoring them through the separation premise makes one complicit in said sexism and misogyny by a refusal to acknowledge them. Furthermore, recognising the work of a convicted abuser who is alive, like Polanski, is unsettling and should not even be considered as part of the debate separating the art and the artist. 

Bibliography

Gandhi, Manasi, 2015. Blurred Lines – Between the Artist and His Art, Socio-Logical Review, 11(2), pp. 67-85. https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/soclerev11&id=234&collection=journals&index=

Grady, Constance, 25 June 2019. What do we do when the art we love was created by a monster? Vox. https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/10/11/17933686/me-too-separating-artist-art-johnny-depp-woody-allen-michael-jackson-louis-ck

Lee, Shannon, 22 November 2017. The Picasso Problem: Why We Shouldn’t Separate the Artist’s Misogyny’, Artspace. https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/art-politics/the_picasso_problem_why_we_shouldnt_separate_the_art_from_the_artists_misogyny-55120

McGowan, Charis, 23 November 2018. Poet, hero, rapist – outrage over Chilean plan to rename airport after Neruda, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/23/chile-neruda-airport-rename-outrage-admitted-rape-memoirs

Tayyab, Areeba, 2020. Tracing female objectification in Neruda’s work: a psychoanalytical study of courtly love in twenty love poems and a song of despair, European Journal of Interdisciplinary Research, 1(1), pp. 21-28. https://eujir.org/2020/09/tracing-female-objectification-in-nerudas-work-a-psychoanalytical-study-of-courtly-love-in-twenty-love-poems-and-a-song-of-despair/

Trista, 11 October 2018. 16 Times Artist Pablo Picasso Would Have Been Called Out During the #MeToo Movement, History Collection. https://historycollection.com/16-times-artist-pablo-picasso-would-have-been-called-out-during-the-metoo-movement/

Williams, Trey. 29 February 2020. Adèle Haenel Walks Out of César Awards After Roman Polanski Win: “Bravo, Pedophilia”, The Wrap. https://www.thewrap.com/adele-haenel-walks-out-of-cesar-awards-in-protest-after-roman-polanski-win-bravo-pedophilia/

[Featured image sourced from Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907 https://blog.singulart.com/en/2019/12/03/the-controversy-behind-les-demoiselles-davignon-by-pablo-picasso/ ]

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