Bad Men, Great Artists: How to Reconcile one with the Other

Pablo Picasso was an awesome artist. No one really argues about that. He was the founder of Cubism, a movement which lay the foundation of much Twentieth Century art, and he is probably the best-known and most influential artist of his time.

That’s great. But what does it mean that his personal life was not so stellar? Now, we may never know the whole story, but people around him tended to commit suicide.

The list includes one of his mistresses, a son, a grandson, and one of his wives.

What we do know is that he was an inveterate womanizer. Beginning his sexual career in the brothels of Malaga at around 13 years old, he was said to have a voracious sexual appetite. Fine. Good work if you can get it. But it seems that this characteristic generated trouble in his relationships and took a toll on those around him.

In 1935 he left his wife, Olga Khoklova, for his pregnant mistress, Marie-Therese Walter. He refused to divorce Olga, for fear of loosing half his wealth. Olga drank herself into an early grave, dying in 1955, still married. Now, linking her death and his ideas about divorce is not scientifically sound, but you could be forgiven for any post hoc ergo propter hoc (after that therefore because of that) bias here.

The mother of two of Picasso’s children, his mistress Francoise Gilot, some forty years his junior, left him after ten years of cheating and abusiveness. This we know from her memoir, after the publication of which he never spoke to their two children again.

When he was 79 he married his 35-year-old mistress. She shot herself thirteen years after his death.

My aim is not to villify Picasso. There is probably plenty of he said/she said going on here. But probably not enough to warrant a Trumpian there is blame on both sides moment. Clearly his personal life was complicated, his relationships difficult, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that he was a hard person to be with — or without – and very possibly according to plenty of other anecdotal information, he was an abusive bully.

If we are to look at all this data, then, and conclude that he was what might be technically referred to as an asshole, how might that alter our impression of the genius that he is universally acclaimed to be? What does it mean that someone who the entire world venerates conducted himself in a way that damaged those who loved him? How, in other words, do we reconcile the man and the artist? The abuser and the lauded public figure? Art is such an emotive force that the word «Picasso» is far more than a signifier of one paltry, sordid, flawed individual. But then again, he was a man, he did live and interact and have relationships and affect people close to him, and on this as well as his artistic production, will he be judged.

Or what about Micheal Jackson? For millions of people he is synonymous with hip hop. He transformed the world of music, of dance, of youth culture, forever, spawning a host of artists in his wake, influencing whole generations of people. In his way he was every bit as influential and game-changing as Picasso.

But for years there have been signs and allegations. And now, following the release of the documentary Leaving Neverland, the world has heard these allegations first-hand, and after hearing them, or with such knowledge, as T.S. Eliot said, what forgiveness? (Eliot had his own problem, of the sexual and intimacy variety, but that’s another story quite nicely encapsualted in this New Yorker piece).

Credible allegations of extreme, long-lasting abuse of children present us with an image of Michael Jackson as an extremely disturbed paedophile. Fans, therefore (worshippers, sometimes), now have to hold in their minds two distinct images of their hero: The music sensation and the child abuser.

And just as with Picasso, or more so, because these allegations involve kids, we are faced with a perpetrator of harm of a particularly vile and insidious kind.

The list of star abusers is long. Just take a look at the list of people defrocked by the #Metoo movement, and before, people otherwise loved or applauded for their contributions like Bill Cosby. I’m only touching on the ones that were variously loved or enjoyed as entertainers, public figures, role models. Harvey Weinstein produced lots of cool movies, but he was not really a public figure, did not have a large, adoring public following.

So, if we are to continue enjoying the art of Picasso — and we will — and if we are to continue to enjoy the music of Michael Jackson — and we will — we have to pull off a cognitive manoeuvre of some subtlety, or simply stick our heads in the sand. In the case of both men, there is no justice available because they are dead. We cannot then punish or exonerate, but simply accept, and find a way forward, a way to peel away the human flotsam that is the man from the genius that is the artist. We must learn to live with this ambivalence, this seemingly impossible paradox, that someone can create beauty or deep insight, can change the goal posts of culture, shift the paradigm dramatically, and in so doing become a beloved public figure, while at the same time causing harm and suffering to those closest.

Writer of fiction & non fiction. Author of “The Thinking Past: Questions and Problems in World History to 1750,” and the ebook Look Smart!

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store