At what point do we separate iconic work from the disappointment that created it?
Writing: Olivia Humphrey
To me, swallowing the phrase ‘artistic genius’ is akin to swigging one cocktail too many: sugared praise has formed an irritating frosting around the lips, charming adornments of maraschino cherries or pretentious sunglasses now seem conceited and you’re having trouble digesting the same ingredients used over and over, with only slight variations on accessories. And yet, cocktails continue to be revered as a luxury, despite serving up the worst hangovers available.
Such is the reality of popular culture’s most revered personalities. It is an unfortunate truth that if we look beyond the creative output of those we idolise many of them exhibit less glowing personal traits. Caravaggio birthed what are arguably several of the most breath-taking baroque paintings the world has ever witnessed. So much so that even following his banishment from Rome as punishment for murder he was commissioned to create the ironically titled Seven Acts of Mercy. Diego Rivera was a self-admitted serial adulterer but yet was for a time Mexico’s most celebrated muralist. The debilitating mental impact his affairs had on Frida Kahlo, his wife, laid way to some of her most revered paintings; but equally it’s also been speculated that they contributed to her rapid physical decline in the years leading to her early death, owing to old injuries. In years following, he was diagnosed with cancer of the penis – read into that what you will. However, as much as we might abhor the actions of disappointing individuals the world would be a lesser place without their artistry. So, at what point do we begin to separate iconic work from the disappointment that created it?
Andy Warhol offers a delicious debate. I, for one, adore his work. Immortalised for his pop-art screen prints, short films and legendary social circle surrounding his New York studio - the Factory - he has been cast as both a shy, rare eccentric and a callous misogynist. His homages to mass production frequently portrayed female celebrity and his renderings of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Hurley and Jackie Kennedy are immediately familiar to any knackered art student. The flat, aggressively colourful aesthetic together with the multitudes of reproductions are reductive and cast the women as carbon copies of one another. Furthermore, they are brash diminutions of suffering. Red Jackie was created in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination; Elizabeth Taylor was grievously sick at the making of Liz Taylor and Marilyn was made just two weeks after her suicide. In light of this, Warhol has been credited with a wistfully harrowing depth. However, it remains true that he has compressed traumatic headline material into these women’s portraits in the same slapdash manner that one might whack together a sandwich.
It is true that Warhol frequently played host to a rococo collection of complex women; the socialite Edie Sedgwick immediately comes to mind who sported a paraphernalia of mental health issues and drug abuse. However, it is the case of Valerie Solanas, who on 3rd June 1968 shot Warhol twice in the chest, that paints Warhol as a Machiavellian, domineering force on the women in his life. Warhol survived, but the episode instilled in him a fear of hospitalisation that would inevitably kill him nineteen years later. Solanas, the mother of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), was convinced Warhol had stolen a script she had wanted him to produce. On turning herself in, she claimed he “had too much control over [her] life.” In another artist’s case, such an event would have overshadowed any physical output for the rest of their career but in Warhol’s case he is mythologised as a tortured character and fetishized by academia.
This conflict is also depressingly true of other fields. Novelists reside in that same societal niche in which behaving badly is polished as being ‘tortured’ or ‘eccentric.’ Those who brought us Harry Potter, Anna Karenina and Mary Poppins are similarly controversial. By now almost everyone will be aware of the embarrassment J.K Rowling’s twitter feed evokes in the stomachs of us all. Her online support of transphobic tax expert Maya Forstata, who tweeted in December that “men cannot change into women”, wasn’t the first time Rowling had been accused of being a transphobe supporter. As for Tolstoy, you can credit Sophia Tolstaya, his long-suffering wife with the fact that most of his books were even considered for publishing. She re-wrote his novels by hand – in all their many revisions – and deciphered his illegible handwriting with a magnifying glass, despite his numerous affairs and dire eating habits (in the later years of their marriage he insisted on eggs for every meal). The intense manual labour behind this gargantuan task, alongside raising seven children, has gone largely uncredited.
Perhaps most disillusioning is the narrative of Pamela Travers, author of Mary Poppins. Having agreed to adopt two twin brothers from Dublin, Travers instead chose to separate them and abandoned the younger sibling to a life of poverty and neglect. Both children, like Travers, descended into alcoholism in adulthood. An unaccounted story of hostility and abuse couldn’t be further from the “spoonful of sugar” imagery that has been so long associated with the iconic story. It is unsurprising that these features made it into the wholesome film Saving Mr Banks.
Despite all of this, come the opening of the Tate Modern’s retrospective on Warhol in March, I will be clamouring for a ticket. Partly because, even with the information we have from literature and his works, it is impossible for us to know the truth of the elusive artist’s character and partly because his work is simply too enigmatic to resist.
I find myself reaching the same conclusion concerning these books. I have experienced too much joy from each of these authors to regret having read their material. Harry Potter and Mary Poppins contributed to an embarrassingly large part of my childhood. As for Tolstoy, Anna Karenina will remain one of my most cherished novels throughout my entire life, alongside his other masterpieces. It seems impossible to separate art from the artist. It is as if in placing more importance on the shameful acts of the individual we commit a shameful act ourselves by denying the world a morsel of joy. Perhaps that seems a cop-out. I’ll have to ruminate on it over a cocktail.
Image: via Wikipedia