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Can We Separate Art from Artist?

On the allegations against the photorealist Chuck Close, the conflation of art and artist, and the nuances therein.

Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker, desperately wanted her movies to be viewed as distinct from herself and her politics. They were, she insisted, artistic “cinéma vérité.” But in reality, they were propaganda — communicative devices with clear and biased political goals not subject to interpretation, and therefore rightfully categorized as something other than art.

“To cast Riefenstahl in the familiar role of the individualist-artist,” Susan Sontag wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1975, “should seem like nonsense to anyone who has seen ‘Triumph of the Will’ — the most successfully, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.”

It’s important to note that Sontag staked her argument not on Riefenstahl’s wicked personhood so much as on the fact that her movies were exclusively about espousing those views. “The force of her work is precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas,” she wrote.

All of this came to mind upon the recent news that an exhibition of the work of the photorealist artist Chuck Close at the National Gallery in Washington was canceled because of sexual harassment accusations against him. Women who came to his studio to pose for him between 2005 and 2013 said he made them feel uncomfortable and exploited.

Read the rest of the essay at The New York Times.

Photo image via George Etheredge for The New York Times.

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