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In this episode of Crash Course Art History, we’ll keep digging into the myth of the Great Artist, with whether we can—or should—separate artists’ personal actions and beliefs from the art they create. Art historians are exploring new ways to think about artists’ relationship to their work and how to talk about controversial art.

Introduction: Great Artists or Monsters? 00:00
"Great Artists" 00:48
The Romantics & Self-Portraits 01:53
The Avant-garde & Surrealism 03:10
Van Gogh & Gaugin 04:59
Artistic Collaboration 06:39
Separating Art from the Artist 07:48
Review & Credits 10:07

Image Descriptions:


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CC Kids:
Artists are not always the best people.

Caravaggio went to prison for assault, Gauguin had   a relationship with a 13-year-old Tahitian girl. And Pablo Picasso abused his partners,   proclaiming there were only two kinds  of women, “goddesses and doormats.”  Like…no.

Just…no. Despite that, an artist’s work may  still feel important or personal to us.  Maybe it makes us feel seen or  heard in a way nothing else has.  So, what do we do with those feelings when  the artist turns out to be kind of a monster? Hi!  I'm Sarah Urist Green, and this  is Crash Course Art History. [THEME MUSIC] These days, it’s fairly common to consider  an artist’s life alongside their work.  The Me Too movement, for example,   has shed light on harassment and abuse  in the arts and entertainment industries,   inspiring calls to withdraw support  and funding from offending artists.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For much of human history,   in much of the world, art was made  either collectively or anonymously.  So it wasn’t possible to separate the art from the  artist — they were already separate to begin with. But flash forward to Renaissance Europe,  around the 15th century, and a new way   of thinking about artists had emerged.

They weren’t mere mortals like you and I–oh   no–artists were now geniuses, born with a gift. Strangely, however, they almost all happened   to be male. And white.  Hmm.

Peculiar. In the last episode, we began to  unravel this concept of the “Great   Artist”— questioning whether they were  divinely-inspired— somehow more than   human — or whether they were… just people  in the right place, at the right time. But that emotional distance between the  artist and the mere mortals viewing their   work began to change during the Romantic  period, around the late 18th century.  It was then that art began  to explore the inner self.  And it turns out that artists, being  human, are full of big emotions.  But instead of writing about their feelings in  their diary where no one would ever see them,   Romantic artists embraced their  feelings and shared them with the world.  Especially through self-portraits.

Romantic self-portraits weren’t about showcasing  your riches, or status, or popularity.  Like Francisco Goya, who used short  brushstrokes to express inner turmoil,   and different color combinations  to highlight his melancholy. If that sounds like the Romantics  were ye olde emos, you’d be right.  During this period, Great Artists  wanted their work to feel real,   earning a broody, and tortured reputation—a  stereotype you might still recognize today.  I’m looking at you, Timmy Chalamet. The Romantics wanted viewers not only to  observe emotion but to actually feel it   themselves, so they created art meant to stir awe,   even terror, and pushed audiences  to contemplate infinity, mortality.  The intense feeling the work  generated became known as the sublime.

By the mid-19th century, the idea of  the avant-garde was beginning to emerge.  It was all about pushing boundaries to create  new forms and subject matter for artwork.  Translating to the “advanced guard”– or  the first charging into battle – these   artists focused not on copying some old  master, but on breaking with tradition. For painters like Frida Kahlo,   that meant reimagining what self-portraits  could look like and what they could express. In “Las dos Fridas,” or “The Two  Fridas,” Kahlo upped the ante on personal   introspection by painting herself…twice.

The Frida on the right is dressed in   Mexican indigenous clothing, a  nod to her mother’s heritage.  The Frida on the left is wearing white European  dress, representing her father’s background.  But this Frida is also  spattered with her own blood,   revealing her emotional turmoil  in the aftermath of her divorce. In “Las dos Fridas,” we see Kahlo  exploring her fractured identity,   and heartbreak, as well as her resilience. Realistic imagery is combined with unexpected   elements, like the exposed hearts and  artery that connects the two selves.  This mashup of real life images with imaginative,  dreamlike ones, is a hallmark of surrealism,   a movement Kahlo later became associated with.

But she never considered herself a Surrealist,   saying: “I never paint dreams or  nightmares, I paint my own reality.” It’s the open-hearted vulnerability of this work  that sets it apart from what “Great Artists” used   to want their self-portraits to reflect:  class status and intellectual superiority.  This new level of depth and intimacy  signaled a break with that past,   and an opening up of possibilities for the future. As Frida showed us, self-portraits  can allow artists the chance to   explore their thoughts and feelings. But by focusing so much on the individual,   they also tend to reinforce the idea  that Great Artists always work alone.  In reality, artists collaborate all the time.  For better or worse.

Let’s go to the drawing board… In 1888, Vincent Van Gogh moved to the  South of France in search of warmer   weather and better light for his paintings. He had big dreams for a studio where painters   could live together and create art — starting  with his pal, the French painter Paul Gauguin.  Van Gogh would be the Bert to Gauguin’s Ernie,  the Shaggy to his Scooby, the Phineas to his Ferb. At first the cohabitation collaboration was super  productive for both artists, who learned from   each other and created tons of new work.

And some of Van Gogh’s most interesting   pieces were these paintings of chairs… which are  understood to be portraits of himself and Gauguin.  I… don’t see it. Ohhh, there he is. But the devil–or in this case, the  foreshadowing–is in the details.  While Van Gogh’s chair is bright and hopeful,  Gauguin’s is darker and more foreboding.

Based on reality-show-style letters  from this period, Van Gogh’s insecurity   clashed with Gauguin’s arrogance. Two months after moving in together,   the painters had a catastrophic falling out that  ended with Van Gogh cutting off his own ear.  Of the numerous theories, some speculate that  Gauguin was the one who lopped it off after Van   Gogh attacked him. The drama.

Anyway, art has been, and continues  to be, a collaborative process.  And this has been true for  centuries, all around the world. Take the Akbarnama, an illustrated  book commissioned in 16th century   India by Emperor Akbar the Great. It chronicled his reign through   writings and was illustrated by a  crew of around 50 artists trained   in a wide range of traditions including,  indigenous Indian, Persian, and European.

And even super-recognizable artists,  like Andy Warhol, didn’t work alone.  His collaborative studio, called  The Factory, was a busy space,   full of artists, filmmakers, and more. Warhol and his team used screen printing to  create multiple copies of images in record time.  His series “Flowers,” for example, consisted of  large flower paintings done by Warhol himself,   as well as an estimated nine  hundred separate smaller prints,   with assistants helping him to  produce up to eighty prints a day. One of Warhol’s most famous screen  prints is the “Marilyn Diptych,” which   blurs the lines between religious and celebrity  iconography, exploring who we worship and why.

We know now that artists don’t  have to be divinely inspired,   naturally talented geniuses to make great art.  With access, opportunity, and training  lots of people can make great art! And making great art doesn’t make  you a perfect person, either.  But what do we do when a great  artist ends up being an awful person? Some believe we should let art speak for itself  — separate the art from the artist and continue   appreciating the art on its own.

Others believe artists should be   held accountable for their behavior,  no matter how important their work is. But it’s not always an either-or situation;  some find ways to operate in the gray.  For example, let’s return  to our old frenemy Gauguin. Gauguin’s pioneering paintings garnered  him a sparkling professional reputation.  But his personal reputation wasn’t great:  today, he’s frequently criticized for having   abandoned his wife and children to move  to Tahiti, where he had relationships   with several under aged girls, many of whom  are depicted, nude, in his famous portraits.  Gauguin’s work (especially his Tahiti paintings)  has been widely criticized for representing   Tahitian life as “primitive” and “Othered.” In their 2019 Gauguin exhibition,   which coincided with the second  anniversary of the #MeToo movement,   the National Gallery in London brought both  Gauguin’s works and wrongdoings to the table.

In an exhibition catalog, wall labels, and a  public debate between scholars and writers,   they offered viewers all the information,   so they could interpret Gauguin’s art  themselves and reach their own conclusions. In thoughtful processes like these, the myth  of the Great Artist continues to break apart,   showing artists as the deeply  flawed people they sometimes are. So, while there’s no easy answer to whether,  or how much, we should separate art from the   artist, art historians can approach  controversial art with thoughtfulness.  We can use an artist’s biography to help  us understand how their experiences inform   and impact the art they create.

That way, an artist’s biography,   when added to social and historical  contexts, helps us understand how their   work fits into art history and helps  determine its place in society today. Unraveling the myth of the Great Artist  doesn’t mean we completely ignore the artist.  After all, art is the result of an  individual artist’s physical, intellectual,   and emotional labor. It’s informed by   their perspectives and experiences.

And sometimes they do and say bad things. And we have to figure out what to do with  that — to preserve and illuminate history   as it actually happened, while working  toward a better and more just world today. Next time, we’ll talk about all  the different ways we can assess   the value of art.

I’ll see you there. Thanks for watching this episode of Crash  Course Art History which was filmed at the   Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields and  was made with the help of all these flawed,   but still deeply talented people. If you want to help keep Crash   Course free for everyone, forever,  you can join our community on Patreon.