General ArtPainting

AI: Jackson Pollock was a Jerk

I just recently returned from a trip to The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, affectionally known as MoMA to the locals. I spent a few moments in front of  a painting by Jackson Pollock and I got to thinking.

What I was thinking about was that Jackson Pollock was really kind of a jerk. He was a major drinker with bouts of violence who unfortunately struggled with what could be considered severe depression. He arguably stole the spotlight from and cheated on his equally talented wife, Lee Krasner and he technically killed himself and someone else in a car crash because of his psychological ailments and problems with alcohol.

Yet we (collectively as a society) still love him and his work. This is the same for many other artists and performers. Picasso being a womanizer, Jim Carrey acting a fool when it comes to autism, Tom Cruise and his endless promotion of scientology comes to mind. The list goes on and on. We seem to forgive the massive character failures of some of our artists in exchange for the gifts they leave behind.

Are you able to separate the art from the artist? Or can you simply not enjoy the work of certain artists when you realize some of them are complete jerks? Examples please.

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. This is RAMPANT in the world of jazz. Buddy Rich especially comes to mind. He was a masterful drummer and led a legendary big band, but was infamous for his bouts of rage. There are even a few recordings where you can hear him cussing at his band during drum breaks. Charlie Parker sold his saxophone to buy heroin on his way to a jazz festival. Miles Davis beat all of his various wives over the years and would famously perform with his back to the audience in a signal of just how much he didn’t care that they were there. I just take the art with the artist.

    It does make artists who were good people especially worthy of admiration, though.

  2. I can separate the art from the artist. One of my favorite artists is Caravaggio, I love his work for the technical ability & its grittiness but I have no doubt he was a real dick. A hot temper that got him into fights repeatedly and finally ended with him killing a man. I may hate and artist but love their work. I may hate the message of their work but still love the image. Or as with Pollock I may hate the artist & the work.

    As a side note I kinda hate the MOMA, I went there on an art trip with my school and we spent the whole day there because the teachers were into modern art and only spent 2 freeken hours in the MET!!!!!!

  3. “Are you able to separate the art from the artist?”

    Not all the time, which is why many times I do not want to learn more about artists/performers I enjoy. But only their failings that hurt others (abusive behavior) would really affect how I see their art.

    For example, I really have no desire to watch any Roman Polanski film made after ’77.
    But on the other hand, I have never really felt an affinity for Pollock’s work, so his failings don’t affect me all that much.

  4. I would also agree with above that “It does make artists who were good people especially worthy of admiration, though.”

    What I often see tho is people refusing to accept that their favorite musician, artist or actor could possibly be a bad person.

    Also it may be worth asking how linked the artists personality is to their art. Anecdote; I only paint when depressed/stressed.

  5. I’m pretty good at separating the art from the artist. I can read and enjoy “Ender’s Game,” even though I think Orson Scott Card’s stance on whether or not I should have civil rights is deplorable. And I enjoy old Woody Allen films even though he turned out to be a lecher. Which, let’s face it, should have surprised no one.

    It’s 6 AM, so no-one is coming to mind right now, but I think the biggest way an artist’s behavior could put me off their work would be if they did their art dishonestly – plagiarism, for example, or unethical practices of some kind….

  6. I can separate the work from the artist to a degree. I won’t read anything by Orson Scott Card if only because I don’t want to put money in his pocket. (Of course there’s the library.) But take a look at the magnificent paintings and architecture that are religious in nature. Is the Notre Dame cathedral any less an architectural marvel because it’s a church? What about Michelangelo’s works?

    As for Pollack, what’s so special about drizzling paint over a canvas?

  7. This is a really good question and I have a decided answer – yes, I can separate the two. Although I find I’m less willing to separate them if I don’t think the artist is very good.

  8. Mostly, I can separate. Almost always when the artist is some kind of jerk that I don’t know personally. I’m graduating from a theatre program, though so I do happen to know a few great actors who I don’t like at all; I am guilty of not seeing a local production of The Rocky Horror Show because the main cast consisted of a lot of great actors who I viewed as mostly jerks.

  9. To take it in the other direction: Lady Gaga is very socially active in a lot of areas I support, but I still can’t stand her music.

  10. Yes and no. It depends on the art and the artist.

    Tom Cruise, whose product is himself, and who’s a horrible influence on the world, I have a serious problem with.

    Everyone else, not so much.

  11. Judging from all the comments above, it seems pretty personal. And is further (anecdotal) evidence that art-in-a-vacuum is a myth.

    But then I think, hmmm, speaking of myths, what about Homer? Extraordinarily brilliant work by someone many argue didn’t exist (or was a woman, or was several people, or was Francis Bacon (wha?)). When the artist is lost in the mists of time we attribute the work to the whole society, perhaps.

  12. It really is something that has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Some art can survive on its own — not in a vacuum, but at least separate from the context of its creation. Other artworks would wither out of context. The stuff that thrives independent of its context, I would hazard a guess, will also thrive independent of the qualities of its maker.

    Translated into another context — I would be a lot more willing to overlook the dickishness of a beloved teacher of calculus than I would a beloved teacher of ethics or political science.

    And by the way, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking this is somehow endemic to the arts. It’s everywhere. The history of science is full of scientists who were jerks! (And of course no one for a moment suggests that maybe their science is somehow wrong because of that.)

  13. Isn’t separating the creator from his/her creation kind of a necessary thing in ANY field? Why do we, as skeptics, seem so ready to avoid any ad hominem arguments and point them out so quickly when the opposite side tries to employ them?

    Moving on to the actual question, as an artist, YES, I can–and often must–separate the creator from the creation. Wagner was an anti-semitic, misogynistic asshole, but who do we think of when someone says “opera”, and our minds reach way back into our childhoods and remember that Bugs Bunny short, with bombastic brass music and horses and funny hats? When I saw “The Pianist”, everyone knew that Roman Polanski was a pedophile, but who wants to keep that in mind when you’re seeing such a beautifully rendered piece of cinema?

    There are many I could draw from my own personal experience in classical music, as well. Suffice it to say without drawing myself to slandering that there are many people whose genius I can wholeheartedly admire while wishing they had a little more people skills.

  14. The closer the artist is to us historically and culturally, I think the harder it is to separate them. I deliberately avoid reading anything about the life of Jorge Luis Borges (= best. writer. ever) because, despite in the Second World War angrily lambasting the quite substantial sections of Argentine society who supported the Nazis, by the time of the 80s he was a ardent supporter of Pinochet. (A recent book by a Chilean writer made a point by featuring the author pissing on Borges’ grave as the front cover.) E.E. Cummings equally made a lifetime transition from liberal free-thinker to racist, grouchy conservative. And, of course, there is the Big One: the (shh, don’t tell anyone) fact that John Lennon was a sanctimonious, hypocritical, egotistical, self-serving tosser. This gives me real problems. I can’t listen to Imagine, not just because it’s mawkish, but also because there’s something rather distasteful about the man with a psychedelically-painted Rolls Royce parked below his Manhattan apartment singing “Imagine there’s no money.”

    But these people are (more-or-less) of our time and culture; with people from longer ago, or of largely different cultures, I think it is easier to ignore the disjunct. Wagner’s music is dreadful, but that is largely unrelated to the fact that he was in person a despicable shite of a man. Beethoven, romanticized as the great Romantic Genius, could otherwise be seen as a foul-tempered syphilitic egoist who bonked his way round half the royal princesses of Europe as he gave them ‘piano lessons,’ and yet threatened to disinherit his nephew for living (monogamously) in sin. Caravaggio, as another commentator has pointed out, was a whoring murderer. But it is easier, I think, to overlook these as we see these people as less of our time — and their artworks as more of ‘the world’, and less subject to our current morality.

  15. @Owl Translator: I think that whilst as a skeptic you might wish to dissociate, and I strongly agree, there is since the Romantic movement, a strong cultural meme that art must be ‘personal’ and that part of the aesthetic experience lies in identifying with the artist.

    For people who get their kicks this way, fair enough. Horses for courses. (I do slightly object to the fact that many romanticists claim that it is the only way to enjoy art.) I, and I suspect you, am more of the classical bent: I appreciate art in a more impersonal manner (with the odd exception: Britten’s War Requiem always has me bawling like a baby). The romanticists are those who, because of their aesthetic need to identify, are going to have the greatest problems reconciling themselves with asshole artists.

  16. For me it comes down to three things, if the actions are immoral or illegal, harming someone else illegal, if you’re a substance abuser I don’t really care, and if I know about it. I can’t willingly separate the person and my admiration of their work, not just artists.

    I definitely support artists who I know are nice, the first time I met The Roots someone close to me and known to their message boards had passed away, when I introduced myself to ?uestlove (the drummer) and told him my board name he gave a huge hug and expressed his condolences. I was already a HUGE fan of The Roots before that, I had driven down to San Diego to see them just because they had canceled their show in San Francisco, but after that interaction I now support any project I find them on and try to make to any show they have near me and when ever ?uestlove is djing at a local club.

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