Bad Artists and Good Art. Gauguin: The question of art and morality today

On Friday 11th October 2019, Philosophy|Arts discussed whether we can still love the work of celebrated artists in spite of their immoral behaviour. The event was held at the National Gallery as part of the Autumn 2019 exhibition of Gauguin’s celebrated works. On this page you can access video recordings of presentations from the invited speakers.

About the event

We asked whether audiences today should frown on Gauguin’s work because we may be uncomfortable or even outraged by Gauguin’s lifestyle or ethics. Despite the lauding Gauguin’s oeuvre, several would be appreciators of his work are deeply troubled by his biography. To some, he was a bohemian renegade, who broke free from Europe’s bourgeois shackles in his quest for creative liberation in the South Seas. To others, he abused the myth of the noble savage, abandoning his family to satisfy his exotic fantasies, while boosting the market for his art back home.

A spate of recent scandals has made audiences much more sensitive to the issues around how aesthetically pleasing or entertaining artworks originate. Movements such as #MeToo and #StayWoke have made us suspicious of once-admired artists, writers, actors and filmmakers and this increased alertness may prohibit us from feeling good or free to appreciate the work on aesthetic merit alone.

But does this mix up two different concerns? Can we love Gauguin’s painting while loathing Gauguin’s living? Did his life choices sully his legacy? Would his paintings have been possible without the ‘bad’ behaviour? If so, how might we untwist our disapproval of the man from our approval of the art?

This discussion posed questions about how we can (and if we should) make such moral judgements, inviting us to reflect on our relationship to art and consider what we take to be its purpose or responsibilities. 

Speakers included Shahidha Bari, Daniel Callcut, Sacha Golob and Janet Marstine.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Nevermore, 1897, @The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Sacha Golob

Sacha Golob is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College London. He is the Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Visual Arts and the Associate Editor of the British Journal for the History of Philosophy. Golob has published extensively on French and German Philosophy and the Philosophy of Art. His current research looks at contemporary conceptions of degeneration, transformation and virtue.

Shahidha Bari

Shahidha Bari is a writer, academic and broadcaster. She is a Fellow of the Forum for Philosophy at the London School of Economics. Bari appears regularly on BBC Radio 3’s Arts and Ideas programme, ‘Free Thinking’, and is an occasional presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’. From September 2019, Bari will be Professor of Fashion Cultures and Histories at the London College of Fashion and is the author of ‘Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes’.

Shahidha Bari,writer, academic, and broadcaster

Daniel Callcut

Daniel Callcut is a freelance writer and philosopher with a wide interest in the arts. He writes for ‘Prospect’ magazine, ‘Aeon’, and ‘Arts Professional’. Cambridge University Press and Routledge have published Callcut’s academic work and he is the editor of ‘Reading Bernard Williams’, an extensive collection of essays on one of the great philosophers of his generation.

Daniel Callcut, freelance writer and philosopher

Janet Marstine

Janet Marstine is Associate Professor in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. She writes on diverse aspects of museum ethics from codes of practice to diversity initiatives and artists’ interventions as drivers for ethical change. She is author of ‘Critical Practice: Artists, museums, ethics’ (Routledge 2017), among other titles, and co-editor, with Svetlana Mintcheva, of the forthcoming volume ‘Curating Under Pressure: International perspectives on negotiating conflict and upholding integrity’.

Janet Marstine, Honorary Associate Professor, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

Want to find out more about Gauguin?

Want to find out more about the Art & Ethics debate?

Read the Nutshell Interview with Joseph Kendra, Programmer at the National Gallery on Morality and Art here