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Culture

Moral crusaders risk destroying all art

Paul Gauguin’s Arearea. Time to “stop looking”?

Art is no longer judged on its own merits, says Joanna Williams in The Times, but “according to the sins of the artist”. Last week a hammer-wielding maniac attacked a statue by sculptor Eric Gill outside the BBC’s offices in London. It’s a “beautiful” statue, but Gill, who died in 1940, sexually abused his daughters, his sisters and the family dog. Offensive behaviour, certainly, but does that give us the right to tear down his work? In 1967 the French theorist Roland Barthes argued for “the death of the author”, freeing artworks from the “tyranny of authorial intent”. Today’s artistic judgment boils down to a moral assessment of the “identity and intent” of the artist.

The audio guide at the National Gallery’s 2019 Gauguin exhibition kicked off by asking: “Is it time to stop looking at Gauguin altogether?” Gallery-goers were asked to keep in mind the painter’s relationships with teenage girls and derogatory remarks about Polynesian people. It’s much the same with “Woody Allen’s films, Michael Jackson’s music and Philip Roth’s novels”. Meanwhile the Turner prize is awarded annually to “the most woke group project”. Despicable though some of our greatest artists certainly were, judging work by their morality is the end of art “as we know it”. Literature, sculpture, music and painting would all be reduced to a worthy lecture. “And no one likes to be hectored.”

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