12 Sep 2017

Amorality and the Artist

On Wednesday, 6 September the Centre for Ethics welcomed Pulitzer Prize winner Mr Sebastian Smee to present a lecture titled ‘Artistic License – Why do so many great artists defy conventional morality?’.

Mr Smee is the current Art Critic for the Boston Globe and author of numerous books on Modern Art. He is no stranger to the tumultous personal lives of Pablo PIcasso and Willem de Kooning to name just two, and noticed a trend of great artists behaving badly while writing his book The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.

While not wanting to pass judgment on artists whose works have transcended time and culture, Mr Smee said “I simply wanted to know what happened, yet what I found was dismaying… did [Edgar] Degas have to be so prickly towards women and an Anti-semite at the end of his life?”

Mr Smee said that today when we look back on the bad behaviour of these artists, what we see is an age-old cliche – the artist as boheme, the artist as rabble-rouser, and the artist as the pervert. Yet, it remains evident in so many examples that bad behaviour and good art often goes hand-in-hand. But why?

Mr Smee used Edvard Munch, Iris Murdoch, Jackson Pollock and Lucien Freud as examples of historical figures who fit this stereotype. Why has showcasing moral and personal failings at the same time as hosting the capacity to create sublime works that defy convention become so commonplace amongst these cultural elites he asks.

“Iris Murdoch was complicated. She was capable of great selfishness, betrayal and had a weakness for cruelty”, said Mr Smee. But Ms Murdoch was also interested in ethics, and her works held an ethical purpose in showing people the very decay that they avoid and shun.

“Murdoch believed in realism and imagination as a moral discipline. Attention is a form of love and good artists are very good at paying attention”.

Mr Smee said that attention gives no explanation or excuse for the misanthropy, craziness and personal failings of the artists he’s written about but suggests an alternative way of seeing them.

“Successful creativity comes from a state of mind that is hugely enviable – it’s about being on a roll and moving by instinct not by custom” he said.

“The rest of us are fascinated by this state of being and feel threatened by them, so we caricature them… I am not at all recommending bad behaviour thinking that you need to be a poseur to be creatively excellent, but artists are just like us, just more so. They are not asking us to like them as moral beings”

Join us for the next Centre for Ethics Public lecture with Rachel Botsman on the Changing Rules of Trust. Rachel joins us on Wednesday, 29 November from 6:30 PM in OBLT. Contact Newington College Reception on 02 9568 9333 or contact@newington.nsw.edu.au to reserve your place


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