Paul Gauguin, "Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching)" (1892) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Should I display the paintings of a murderer? I’ve been asking myself that since I got an email from a friend of William Noguera, who has been on death row in San Quentin for 40 years. Noguera became an artist in prison, at first making photorealistic ink-stipple drawings and then transitioning to a sinuous abstract style, using colorful paint spiked with ground concrete from the prison yard.

The email passed on a message: Noguera wanted me to curate a retrospective exhibition of his artworks, the products of “decades of a mind struggling with confinement.” Noguera’s works are mesmerizing. But he was convicted of beating a woman to death. I didn’t know what to do.

These days, many of us are similarly wondering how we should consume or promote art made by people we believe have done something heinous. Should we stop streaming the music of R. Kelly or Michael Jackson? Refuse to watch another Woody Allen movie or visit a Chuck Close exhibition? Erich Hatala Matthes, a philosophy professor at Wellesley College, has written a book about these questions: Drawing the Line: What to Do with the Work of Immoral Artists from Museums to the Movies (Oxford, November 1, 2021). I wondered if Matthes could help me decide what to do about Noguera’s proposal.

Matthes writes clearly and engagingly, using helpful examples and comparisons. Reading the book feels like spending time with a very smart friend who’s thought deeply about the issues. Or, rather, like spending time with a set of smart friends, since the author, a white man, takes care to bring in a diversity of opinions on “problematic faves” and cancel culture from thinkers including Lyra D. Monteiro, Loretta Ross, and Osita Nwanevu.

Matthes asks where we should “draw the line” between sacrificing great art and supporting artists who are predators and bigots. When laying out the questions we might ask about their art, he often returns to the 1994 song “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” sung by the then 15-year-old Aaliyah and written and produced by the man to whom she was secretly married, the then 27-year-old R. Kelly.

“Let me show you to ecstasy,” Aaliyah sings. “Boy be brave — don’t be afraid.” In the song, Matthes writes, “Kelly is using his actual child bride as a mouthpiece to vindicate his exploitative relationship with her” — thus exploiting her all over again. While Matthes finds R. Kelly’s actions morally wrong, he argues that ceasing to listen to the artist’s music is not the only ethically valid response. We can still consume art made by immoral artists, as long as our relationship to this art doesn’t help the artist commit more wrongs or demonstrate a painful lack of solidarity with the victims.

Matthes reassures readers that our individual consumer choices won’t make enough of a financial difference to a living artist to put us on ethically problematic grounds. The same goes for re-watching your old DVD of Manhattan or checking out Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women. He compares these choices to climate change: boycotting these artists, like composting food scraps, might feel good … but neither is going to resolve issues that need collective, structural solutions.

Yet, even if engaging with an artwork isn’t wrong, per se, Matthes makes a clear case that we can trip up in the way we engage. Our public consumption of art can signal, even if unintentionally, approbation of its creators’ heinous acts. And since “you can’t drive around blasting R. Kelly on your stereo and yell to each individual person that you pass: ‘I do not condone R. Kelly’s behavior! This song just slaps!,’” he suggests you put on your headphones to listen instead.

The calculus also changes for those in a position of influence or authority. You might be able to help stop a predator by denying them the fame and money that enable their exploitative acts. Or, if you consider the artist’s work significant enough to deserve a public audience, you might figure out a way to tell this audience the truth about its creator. For example, Matthes suggests museums add signage to displays of the works of immoral artists, just as he tells his students about Immanuel Kant’s abhorrent racist beliefs whenever he assigns them readings from Kant’s (unrelated) philosophy.

But there’s a big difference between talking to students who are expected to pay attention to their professor and posting a sign in a museum. It’s even more complicated when what’s attractive about the art is closely tied to what’s abhorrent about the artist. For instance, Gauguin’s exotic, erotic Tahitian paintings are so compelling to many viewers because they show their subjects through the colonialist, misogynistic lens that emboldened Gauguin to force himself on Tahitian girls. Research has shown that viewers simply ignore signage that attempts to change views they want to maintain, especially if this would cause uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. I find it hard to believe that most viewers would be willing or able to question their own attraction to problematic aspects of the art … and even harder to believe that many museums would want to risk alienating visitors and donors by asking them to do so.

Even where I disagreed with Matthes, I was thankful for his book. The disagreements helped me get my own thoughts straight. And he would be the first to say that I should disagree with him, since he wrote the book to help us “arrive at your own conclusions about immoral artists.” He thinks we should determine whether their art has enough aesthetic value to justify finding a way to enjoy it without aiding and abetting bad acts. And, he points out, it’s crucial to make this type of determination, since it’s impossible to experience art only made by morally pure people. They don’t exist — we all make moral mistakes. (Matthes specifies that we don’t have a moral responsibility to “go looking for skeletons in the closet of every artist whose work you encounter,” but once we learn about immorality, we have a responsibility to react to that information.)

Learning more about an artist before you make up your mind seemed like a good idea to me, so I ordered Noguera’s memoir, Escape Artist: Memoir of a Visionary Artist on Death Row (Seven Stories Press, 2018). While reading it, I remembered Matthes’s discussions about murder; he contrasts an imagined “artist who relished killing and gleefully depicts scenes of their own murders, inviting the viewer to share in their sadistic pleasure” with “an artist who committed murder, but racked with remorse, spends the rest of their life creating artwork that earnestly attempts to grapple with their guilt and shame.” He argues we should reject the art of the gleeful murderer, since it encourages more harmful acts, while learning about the complexities of human experience from the remorseful murderer.

But it’s not so easy to fit Noguera into these categories. He murdered his girlfriend’s mother. He is remorseful for his act and takes responsibility for it, although he claims it happened when he was in a blacked-out rage — from steroids his controlling father insisted he take — and explains he believed she was sexually abusing her daughter. But his art isn’t about the murder. At least, not as far as he knows.

Noguera describes his art-making as “crossing into dark territory where my subconscious and vision became one.” When he picks up a brush or a pen, he abandons himself to the power he can “invoke but not fully control.” The images in his drawings come from his dreams and visions; he hopes to “fill the viewer with the very emotions that possess me when I create.”

Noguera fights to exhibit his art outside his prison because he wants the world to recognize his strengths and skills. He fears his execution, when he would become “nothing but a spectacle in a macabre theater,” with the “most intimate moment” of his death “a stage performance with a gawking audience … on the other side of clear Plexiglass.”

It took me months to finish reading Escape Artist — partly because it was wrenching enough that I needed breaks to recover, but mostly because I had so much other stuff to do. Matthes insists that we take the time to come to our own decisions about art, but we don’t have nearly enough time to do so for every artist. This is another reason I resist his argument that museums can still display the art of notorious predators and bigots. A recent study found that 85% of the artists in the collections of major museums in the United States are White, while 87% are men. In the collections of the National Gallery of Art, for instance, over 97% of the artists are white. In short: we have plenty of White male artists on display in our museums. Shouldn’t we use our time, space, and funding to explore the work of artists who haven’t gotten the chances these established artists have had? Artists like, say, Noguera — a first-generation Colombian-American immigrant, who uses his self-taught technique to break a window into the hidden places of incarceration?

Maybe I should curate Noguera’s exhibition. Or maybe I should use my time to promote another artist who has committed less harm. Maybe I should stop teaching Caravaggio — another murderer who received a death sentence. I don’t know; I’m still debating. But I am convinced, after reading Matthes’s book, that we can act ethically when we marvel at an artwork produced by an immoral artist — even if the artwork is intimately connected with that immorality and even if the work itself makes us deeply uneasy. It is precisely through art that we can explore human darkness without falling into it entirely.

Erin L. Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College (City University of New York), is the author of Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments (Norton, 2022).

6 replies on “What Do We Do with the Work of Immoral Artists?”

  1. This is a good article- thank you. Thoughtful and wise. At first, reading it, I thought, Oh no, we really don’t need anyone telling us what to do with the work of “immoral” artists; since when was morality an issue for anyone in this country? Then I realized that at least discussing the issue, as the author does, gives readers a chance to think and rethink about it- who is moral? what do we look for in the arts? How do we incorporate these sense impressions into our psyches?

  2. Does the Noguera art warrant your attention on it’s own divorced from the story of the maker? What is the motivation for such an exhibit? The story of the artist eclipses the art. I would see such an exhibit as capitalizing on the crime. Not that that is a bad thing, it is the way of the world. Drama sells. A good story separates the good artist from the renowned. It is healthy to topple statues in the light of understanding. That is growing from our mistakes. So is not making the same mistake twice.

  3. I’ve not read the book, but the very question seems premised on the idea that people are either completely “moral” or “immoral”, when in fact humans are complicated; also our moral, social and political understanding of their behavior is necessarily further complicated by historical, cultural, and personal contexts. Granted, some behaviors are beyond the pale, but discussing the ways in which such behaviors are not incompatible with important invention allows us to avoid the dangers of both hero-worship and witch-hunting–both hallmarks of fascism. Criminal law itself allows conditions and circumstances such as past victimization or altered consciousness to mitigate culpability for criminal behavior (definitions of which are always inflected with prevailing powers structures as well as historically specific concepts of morality) or even heinous acts of interpersonal violence. Is this merciful or does it compromise accountability? Ultimately, I think those of us who study, teach, produce and philosophize about art and culture need to begin parsing out the difference between important ideas and our rather absurd tendency to either valorize or vilify individuals. It’s useful to the project of justice and human liberation to acknowledge, understand and discuss that the proverbial rosebush of human existence is very, very thorny.

  4. The Gauguin example cited in the article is both illuminating and problematic on many levels. The exploitatively erotic Tahitian paintings by Gauguin embody our latter day discomfort with a “colonialist and misogynistic lens” through which Gauguin and many late 19th century western white male artists saw the world. Yet, Gauguin was also exploring his own and western society’s rift with deeply held spiritual values and world views. His “Spirit of the Dead Watching” illustrated in this article and in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery might usefully be compared to another painting in that museum’s stellar collection, “The Yellow Christ.” Both speak to modernism’s deep roots in a poetic language of abstract forms and flattened space refracting and reflecting the authenticity, directness and “realness” of religion in the lives of many people, especially those “primitives” Gauguin and other artists sought out, whether in rural Brittany or the south sea islands. In the case of this Tahitian subject, he captures the tangible reality of ancestors and spirits recalled from that moment between waking and dreaming, where nightmare and eroticism elide. Sometimes it is not at all clear why the immoral artist endures or even if his art should, if not to raise such questions.

  5. US Presidents, Congresspeople, Military and functionaries prosecute war, death and violent empire on foreign regions and commoners at home, but are not censored. If every “bad” (possible errors abound) person where omitted from history or study or art making, we, humanity would never be able to understand, appreciate or condemn or question all the surrounding issues for their value. We must allow openness to EVERYTHING. No more censorship.

    The truth should be the primary environment, not context of personality. We would never be able assess anything rationally should we censor everything SOMEONE finds offensive. The US went through this in the 50’s with William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”, who killed his wife William Tell style. This discussion should not be rehashed. Humanity would be at total loss without Burroughs’s brilliant literature. Picasso was a chauvinist pig and worse. Hitler wrote a bombastic book and made crummy tight ass paintings. But we would never be able to assess the totality, the holistic reality of life if we CENSOR.

  6. Let us say, for example, that Judy Chicago’s displaying of vaginas in “The Dinner Party” is offensive, even heinous, to Amish women, Orthodox Jewish women, traditional Muslim women, or a conventional Protestant or Roman Catholic woman. As opposed to “The Church Lady” stereotype of SNL, these women hold their beliefs sincerely, no matter how much I may question the patriarchy both underlaying and over-arching their lives. I must respect their sensibilities and cultural differences from mine and not dismiss them simply because they are not part of my group: left-leaning over-educated art/creative people. Rather, I am obligated to engage them intelligently. Of course, “The Dinner Party” is not exploitation, but some WOMEN may experience it that way even after they discover that another woman made it. As for Gauguin, then, the application of our contemporary term “predator” is not only wrong, it is culturally misinformed – as is most of the understanding of his life. Because, as a culture, we Euro-Americans tend toward extremist reaction (Salem witch trials, scalp bounties, Dred Scot, Japanese internment, McCarthyism, Reagan’s military homosexual purges) Gauguin is painted as Humbert Humbert or Jeffery Epstein, both abusers of male power and privilege, one literary, the other simply vile. A presentation that neither flinches from discomfort nor knee-jerks is Waldemar Januszczak’s “Gauguin: The Full Story.”

    The United States (that is to say: the white colonizing culture that even the left is beholden to and influenced by) is very deeply Puritanical. It infects and rules both the right and the left, and every person in between no matter how liberated or woke we feel we are. For example, whilst on display in New York, Balthus’ “Thérèse Dreaming” was petitioned to be removed from public view, while its history of public display in Germany caused no similar petition. For over 40 years Norman Rockwell painted annual calendars for the Boy Scouts of America, the leadership of which knew from 1919 on that it had a child sexual abuse problem; do we extend suspicion or guilt by association to his artwork? Robert Crumb publicly admits he has deep emotional issues about women, and he assumed that everyone else would see his caricature of African-Americans as anti-racist as much as he assumed people would understand his disgust for white, middle-class American disregard for others (in both cases he was wrong), but one critic framed her criticism of him, his work and his intentions as between “entertainment and pornography;” is that the scope of consideration for, in this case, comic art, and is entertainment somehow superior to pornography in a society where both are legal for age-appropriate audiences? And, directly to Professor Thompson’s article, a Gauguin is juxtaposed to her conundrum vis-à-vis an assumedly lawfully-convicted murder and his art; Gauguin was never a convicted criminal.

    We toss around a word like immoral (as well as “consume,” which is not what I as an individual do in an art museum: I am neither eating, buying nor stealing; I am observing, encountering or studying) believing, un-self-reflected most of the time, that our “liberal” culture is normative, our standards of left-wing enlightened sophistication and affluence are superior to those further to the ‘right,’ who may and do inhabit thoughtful areas closer to the center as much as any liberal inhabits. But because those persons right-of-center do not conform to our defined sensibilities of awareness, justice, equality, diversity, etc., – simply because they differ – we tend to reject and dismiss them out of hand; and this has resulted over the past several decades in the rightwing extremism we are presently experiencing. The over-comfort of the left is as responsible as the demagoguery of the right. I remember the Reagan-era war against the NEA; do you?

    Indeed – and I am assuming Hyperallergic’s audience is left-leaning for sure – the salient point of the article in question above is: we all must have the liberty to think and rethink our relationship to and with any artist, musician, philosopher, novelist, architect, etc., etc. (I’ve done a lot of rethinking of my ‘relationship’ with Woody Allen and his oeuvre). But we should not make a religion out of it. When I have taught world religions and get to Martin Luther, I praise his youthful empathy and ecclesial defiance on behalf of the poor and the non-Christians, and when I get to his later-in-life reactionary and murderous anti-Jewishness I let him have it – publicly. More so then: the arts – even under oppression, even in the lap of luxury – have always been the realms of human freedom, especially the inward freedom to explore. Self-censorship is heinous and immoral as much as the social-political extremes of either end of the spectrum. I don’t know of any examples in the US of left-wingers burning books or paintings done by “conservatives” as I do of right-wingers burning things because they find them offensive or immoral. I’m sure I can be proven wrong with an example or two, but it is entirely imaginable that that kind of extremist behavior could generate among those who uncritically label certain artists’ work immoral to accomplish their own iconoclastic acts for the sake of purity more than for redress of historic wrongs. And here is the rub: Gauguin – or Hans Bellmer or Balthus – did not make their works for political reasons. Gauguin may have been less-than-frontally aware of his male privilege, in esse, but he was both disgusted by European colonialism and he followed the cultural norms of Tahitians, not the French colonizers, when it came to his emotional and sexual relationships with women there. But all of these men are now “problematic” when judged through our left-wing art critical lenses which deploy purity politics and the economics of boycott as the PRIMARY measures. We never hear of any right-wing art critics or thinkers who may be just as offended by, say, Gauguin’s behavior or art because that conservative thinker may be a conventional Christian. Indeed, the answer is certainly not cancelation (i.e., censorship and iconoclasm) but rather the creation of MORE art by women, and men, that explores both the problematic and the mutual in terms of sexual politics as well as the simple facts of human sexuality – especially heterosexuality. If one “believes in” biological evolution, does one not also believe in the dialogical evolution of the culturally social human being? Do we apply the decisions and development of liberal American culture since the end of World War 2 pell-mell to everything before? Or are we just postmodern fundamentalists when it comes to convicting, say, Paul Gauguin of statutory rape?

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