April 24, 2023
risen to positions of authority and power in Australia, and Humphries did not shy away from mocking them on the public stage.
Do we divorce the artist from their art? Should we? Can we? Humphries cross-played and yet made upsetting transphobic comments on trans culture, meaning some of my community friends consider him a bigot and his comedy empty and his character portrayals hypocritical. True also of JK Rowling, whose social and political comments reveal a personality beset with prejudice. Does that negate her success with the Harry Potter books that shaped an entire generation in the 2000s? Picasso was a confirmed, self-confessed misogynist. Should we stop revering his art? Elvis Presley and under-age girls (way too many rock musicians it might be argued) – so, do we stop adulating his gift to music? In fact, the deeper into artistic talent you delve, the more you find that so many artists were/are relatively terrible people. Despite their amazing artistic talents, shouldn’t we be reviling them?
Rare art is universal. Whether the art was being viewed/heard/read in Mongolia, or three thousand years ago in northern Africa, or in Brisbane 2020, the audience can identify with it – seeing familiarity or fresh light in themselves, or others, or places or things or actions. Universal art reflects emotions, thoughts, experiences, ideas humans have always had and most likely always will. The artist, in these cases, reflects humanity and life. This rare art evokes love, peace, fear, comfort – emotions universal to all humans – and even though the artists create the art, their individual personalities are subsumed in the art. The artist, as a unique person, disappears.
Most art, however, is contextual, the product of a specific culture and moments in time and place. It reflects the values and beliefs of the artists, and the culture in which they live. The artist, as a unique person, is either deliberately visible or, at the very least, present behind the art.
Universal art might garner criticism and opinion about technique and style and impact, but has no intrinsic intention to provoke political or social opinion. The artist can be judged as a ‘good’ or ‘not so good’ artist, because the artist’s personal life is not on display nor considered. The art can be appreciated for itself.
Contextual art cannot avoid provocation. Its content, its subject, its intention will be wedded to its context and, beyond discussions of artistic merit, behind the art the artist can be judged as a ‘good’ or ‘not good’ person. The art can still be appreciated for itself, but there is every possibility its value will be affected by the values of the artist who created it.
I was lucky enough to study Art and Aesthetics many years ago and the universal question of what constitutes good and not so good art was unanswerable. Why? We are humans. We make judgements. We choose to believe what we think is right and wrong, and those choices are predicated by a multitude of influences that form our beliefs, our prejudices, our platforms, our desires and so on. When we make judgements about art and the artists who create it, we are really only revealing ourselves and, in some small way, judging ourselves against our perceptions of good, bad and indifferent. The art remains what it is, even after the artist is long dead and possibly forgotten.
Barry Humphries is dead. Vale an entertaining larrikin. His individual views of the world cease to be expressed. Dame Edna, along with all of Humphries’ work, will be consigned to historical records, in clips and references. Only his art will remain. Perhaps, hereafter, we can judge his art for itself.
As for myself, I’m at a crossroad bouncing between three projects while I wait to see which one wants to dominate.
Writing is my passion. Ideas, opinions, beliefs, experiences expressed through language - through words and images - pervade and create my life. Writing is my voice, my soul, my self. My dream is one day writing will sustain my life...