Monthly Archives: May 2017

How overpriced can art be at these galleries?

I asked a former sales consultant who spent years working at one such gallery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, CA. “Signed and numbered, mechanically reproduced posters can be marked up 100 times or more,” he. “A poster costing only $10 to produce, is sometimes sold to the public for over $1000.

“Unsigned, unnumbered, limited edition etchings or lithographs by major twentieth-century artists can be marked up as many as forty times,” he continues. “For example, a Chagall lithograph that costs a gallery $100 might sell for $4000 including the frame. Art by artists like Peter Max, Erte, or Alexandra Nechita, can be marked up four times or more. This means that a painting consigned to a gallery for $10,000 might sell for over $40,000.

“To be fair,” this former employee adds, “high profile galleries have tremendous overheads. Some pay $60,000 or sometimes substantially more per month in rent alone.” The bottom line, however, is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, 70 to well over 90 percent of what you pay for art at art-target galleries does not go to the art or to the artists, but rather to rent, utilities, furnishings, framing, staff salaries, champagne and brie for art openings, and other gallery expenses. For example, if you pay $4000 for an unsigned unnumbered Chagall lithograph that the gallery bought for $100, it’s only worth $100 the moment it leaves the gallery, and you’ve just wasted $3900.

Through his gallery experiences, he– and all other seasoned owners and employees– know exactly who buys this overpriced art. While working at that Rodeo Drive gallery, he would keep his eye out for people sporting Rolex watches, alligator shoes, designer handbags, and other overt displays of wealth. “Well-dressed married couples in their forties and fifties are also likely buyers,” he adds. “But not newlyweds, and you never talk to people with back packs or rubber shoes, or to artists. They’re all wastes of time.”

While he worked at the gallery, he would typically strike up conversations with likely art targets and start by “qualifying” them, in other words, finding out whether they could afford the art they were looking at. Below are typical questions that art-target gallery sales staff (euphemistically called associates or consultants– which they are not) use to “qualify” buyers.

* “So, are you in town for the medical convention?” (A medical convention may or may not be taking place, but this is a great lead-in to finding out what someone does for a living and getting an idea of how much money they make.)

* “Have you ever bought art before?” (A “yes” answer is better than a “no,” but a “no” still allows the sales associate to continue the conversation by asking what artists they like the most, whether they’re familiar with any of the art they’re looking at, and so on.)

* A “yes” answer to the above question leads to the next question which goes something like “Where do you buy your art?” (Knowing where a person buys art is critical to making a sale. According to this former gallery associate, people who buy directly from artists are unlikely to buy at galleries. If, however, they buy at galleries similar to the one where he once worked, the chances of selling them art are much greater.)

* Assuming the art-target buys at higher profile galleries or has at least thought about it, the next question goes something like “Who are your favorite artists?” (If the person mentions names of artists or types of art that the gallery sells, this is good.)

Additional ways of qualifying art targets are beyond the scope of this article, but anyone who qualifies and shows interest in the gallery’s art is given immediate attention. A sales associate shadows the art target and either continues the conversation or remains in the art target’s vicinity making occasional remarks about whatever art is being looked at. The associate is trained to make the art target feel important, and when combined with the impressive trappings of the gallery’s lavish interior, the art target becomes seduced, tenderized, and readied to be sold to.

The sales person pays close attention to the way the art target looks at the art, prepared to spring into action at any moment, and move in for the kill the instant more than a casual amount interest is expressed in a particular piece of art. The associate’s goal is to remove that piece of art from the main gallery and suggest that the art-target study it more closely in a place called the “viewing room.”

The viewing room is usually a smaller room off of the main gallery floor with a door that can be closed for privacy. It’s specially designed for isolating art targets alone with their sales associates, and for showing art so that it looks its absolute finest. At one end of the room is a display area with sophisticated lighting where the art is positioned for viewing. The art target is seated across from and facing the art, usually on a comfortable couch, while the associate adjusts the lighting to perfection, all the while talking about how great the artist is and how fantastic the art looks. Under these circumstances, the art target is most vulnerable and the associate eventually pops the question “Would you prefer to pay for that with a VISA, MasterCard, or American Express?”

Viewing rooms are not good places for art targets to find themselves in unless they already know the value and significance of the works of art that they’re thinking about buying, or they know and trust the gallery that’s selling the art and have done business with them before. Below are additional tips, not only for avoiding viewing rooms, but also for avoiding becoming an art-target in any way, shape or form.

** Art-target galleries like the one where this individual worked are usually found in high traffic, high profile, commercial areas that attract wealthy people. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the Soho district of New York City, Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square in San Francisco, and high-end tourist destinations like Carmel, CA and Honolulu, HI all have these types of galleries. Cruise ship art auctions are the high-seas version of art-target galleries.

** The substantial majority of art-target galleries are located at street level. Their opulent interiors are clearly visible through large picture windows and through glass doors that are often open to the street.

** Art-target galleries typically show art by artists with high name recognition like Leroy Neiman, Erte, Thomas Kinkade, Peter Max, Dali, and Alexandra Nechita. They also show prints by “Modern Masters” such as Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and Miro; and, occasionally, prints by Impressionists like Degas, Monet, and Pissaro; or etchings by Old Masters like Rembrandt.

** Many of the unsigned prints sold at art-target galleries are mass edition lithographs removed from books or portfolios, posthumous printings (printings done after the artists are dead); some are even copies of works by famous artists done by other artists. All have very modest street value. Inexperienced collectors who buy these types of limited edition prints at art-target galleries often have little or no idea of what they’re really getting.

** Art-target sales people use pressure tactics to sell art (many work entirely on commission, so the only way they make money is to sell you art). Anytime you feel any pressure from an associate, no matter how subtle, to carry on a conversation, talk about yourself, and especially, to buy art, leave immediately. Questions about your credit limit or your financial situation are also immediate signals to leave. Depending on the sex of the associate and the target, pressure can even include flirting. By way of contrast, in the non-target art world, gallery personnel normally leave you alone when you look like you don’t want to be approached.

** Always ask your sales associate whether or not he or she works on commission. If they waffle on the answer, get it in writing. As stated above, many art-target sales associates work on commission. In other words, the more art they sell, the more money they make. And the more they sell that art for, the more money they make. So the goal of a commissioned art associate or sales person is to sell you as much art as expensively as possible. Recommendation: Do not patronize galleries whose sales personnel work on commission.

** Art-target galleries often have high profile art openings with security guards, spotlights, champagne, hors d’oeuvres, cameras flashing, and people at desks in the fronts of the galleries welcoming you, asking you questions and signing you in. Sales associates run around with clipboards, ready to sell. Likely art targets are waited on hand-and-foot, the entire event being designed to make them feel very, very important… and then to buy art.

** At art-target openings, gallery personnel typically stop you at the door and request personal information, ask you to sign in, or ask how you heard about the opening. Requests for personal information are always warning signs. Non art-target galleries rarely engage in such practices. You are being sized up for a hard sell– never forget this.

** Art-target galleries typically stay open well into the night when giddy revelers, out on the town and with money to spend, are likely to wander in after enjoying good food and fine wines at expensive restaurants. Two cardinal rules of intelligent art collecting, by the way, are never to buy art at night and never to buy it under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Being an art target can be loads of fun at the moment you’re buying art, but finding out what that art is worth months or years down the road when you decide you want to sell it or have it appraised is anything but fun. Of course, you’re entitled to buy whatever art you like, wherever you see it for sale, and pay whatever you want to pay for it. But if you care about the value of what you’re buying and how you spend your money, resist any pressure to buy, take your time, do a little price research in advance, or ask an outside appraiser to do it for you before you become an art target.

The creative instinct

Denver painter Elsa Sroka places her artwork squarely on the contemporary side of realism. Drawing from her own memories as well as a deep font of imagination, Sroka transforms traditional subject matter into partially abstracted yet lucid expressions of the things that feed her soul. An intense love of color and design, at times infused with her wry wit, forms the foundation of Sroka’s painting. She strives to communicate these facets of her aesthetic and herself to viewers, even as she seeks to fulfill her own drive to create.

Largely self-taught, Sroka hovered on the outskirts of the art world for years. She honed her sense of color by painting rooms in her home over and over until she found just the right hue. She worked on her technique by painting murals in her children’s rooms. And when the time came to evolve, she embraced the change completely, exchanging her day job for her passion. Success came quickly, and she burst onto the commercial gallery scene after little more than a year. Sroka met the challenge head on, and seven years later she has taken her place among the most notable contemporary artists in the West.

A Colorado native, Sroka grew up in a family of six children, all of whom were encouraged by their parents to embrace their creativity. Sroka describes her father as being passionate about art and architecture and having a constant supply of such projects available to keep his children engaged. “Art has always been a huge part of my existence,” says Sroka. Likewise, at school, art class was the only one that truly captivated her.As an adult, Sroka channeled her creativity into styling hair and spent more than two decades in that field. She considers her time as a stylist as informative for her later fine-art career, allowing her to explore color and design techniques daily. “I always imagined people’s hair as sculpture,” she explains. “Working with materials like hair textures that change from person to person, I was making quick decisions as to how to sculpt unique hair types into flattering shapes, as well as find flattering colors for each skin tone.” But dealing with hair exclusively didn’t fully satisfy Sroka’s artistic desires. As she helped organize art auctions at her children’s school and worked with them on their own art projects, she thought more about her own passion for design and aesthetics. Her next move was pivotal: she enrolled in art classes.

Sroka studied at the Art Students League of Denver for nearly a year before she decided to quit styling hair and make the leap to painting full time. “I wanted to make my own mark and express my own voice,” she says of the life-changing move. Painting on her own and at the League proved challenging for the artist, but at the same time, she felt as if she had come home. “I took a few classes that were completely over my head,” she says. “I had no idea of the basics—what paint to bring, what surfaces to paint on—but I also felt so comfortable in that world that it didn’t matter. I felt like I was in a foreign country, surrounded by and immersed in it, and I would naturally pick up what I needed. I also had an intense desire to learn and felt like I was consuming and devouring something that I was starved for. I still feel like that.”

She started off sampling several mediums, from oils to watercolors, and explored a variety of subject matter as well. Eventually, this trial and error led Sroka to her signature cows. While painting a chance portrait of a bovine, she decided she wasn’t happy with the direction the piece was taking. She began scraping the paint off and moving the pigment around, and before long she had transformed the composition into a more abstracted piece that revealed an energy and vibrancy the original image lacked. She incorporated this “accidental” technique into subsequent pieces and found a kinship with the process that soon became integral to her work

Oddly enough, Sroka’s painting experience was one of her first with cows. What began as random compositional elements developed into objects of sincere affection. “I fell in love with them through painting them,” says the artist of her cows. “It wasn’t because I grew up with them; it wasn’t any deeper connection to them, really. But I love how they have this expressive feel, and I pick out the cows that I feel a connection with.”

A cow on a couch, in a boat, or next to a staircase—these are the clever juxtapositions that situate Sroka’s traditionally bucolic subjects in a decidedly contemporary realm. “Why do cows and cattle always have to be in rural settings? I want them to have a more contemporary twist,” Sroka muses. Her spin on the usual pastoral scenes is evidence of her flair for the unexpected, while also incorporating a bit of whimsy into the work. Further, she treats each cow as its own entity, homing in on its individual characteristics. She believes she has gained a deeper understanding of the cows as a result of this approach and explains, “I feel like I know them. I feel like there’s a connection that I’ve made just in studying their faces and their body language so much.”

In contrast to her thoughtfully constructed cow portraits, Sroka’s painterly, demonstrative landscapes are spontaneous, often based on her reactions to color combinations. “Color is a really big thing for me,” she says. Indeed, many of her paintings are born of nothing more than a swath of color that speaks to her in the moment. She then incorporates other hues that complement her narrative and threads the assorted elements together, often adding glazes to produce cohesion among the layers. What begins as a simple, singular act grows into bold pairings and subtle shifts that swell and recede, producing a distinctive atmospheric depth and intensity.

A combination of her experiences and feelings, Sroka’s freestyle, impasto landscapes offer a counterpoint to her meticulously designed cow paintings. Each process allows her to access a different area of her creativity, and in turn informs and reinforces the other. “I love to have both,” she says of the two methods.

Sroka works in her studio, surrounded by tubes of oil paint, canvases in various stages of completion, and her many tools, among which are an array of brushes, scraping implements, and even her hands. The physical act of creating is paramount for Sroka, and she takes great pleasure in the tactility of her process. The mixing, painting, scraping, and smearing all foster an immediate and lasting connection between artist and work. When arranging compositions, she eschews digital editing programs, preferring to cut out and piece together found digital or magazine photographs by hand so she can visualize each new scene before translating it into paint.

Using digital images allows her to zoom in and capture each animal’s unique facial shape and demeanor. By keeping her compositions small enough to focus on her subjects’ subtleties, she can pepper her canvases with the “little bits” that give viewers a visual foothold. All of this results in carefully executed layers of rich pigment infused with the artist’s thoughts and movements. “It’s a process to me,” she explains. “I’m not afraid to destroy a painting and bring it back.”

Sroka has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Over the past decade, she has forged a new path, finding success and overcoming challenges along the way. “I have much more confidence in color and drawing now,” she says of her artistic evolution. “I also have faith that, when I let things go, I can bring the painting back in a confident way to control it.” Further, Sroka feels that her work with abstract landscapes has freed her to explore subject matter in a looser fashion and to access her intuitive side more fully than before.

Mondrian’s paintings

Before you start to think about Mondrian’s paintings,” says the Dutch artist’s biographer Hans Janssen, of the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, “you have to realise that he was born, in 1872, by candlelight in Amersfoort, a backward, economically undeveloped town in Utrecht. And he died, aged 71, beneath fluorescent lights, on the 3th6 floor of a skyscraper in New York. That’s an enormous leap, from the 19th into the 20th Century – and I think it’s very telling for the artist.”Mondrian’s style evolved from landscapes and still lifes to geometric canvases

We are standing in The Discovery of Mondrian, the Gemeentemuseum’s major new survey of the work of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), which consists of around 300 paintings and drawings. It is the first time that every work by the artist in the museum’s collection has been shown simultaneously.

And, most likely, it will force anyone who thinks they know Mondrian, as a rational, rigorous painter of crisscrossing black grids embellished with blocks of primary colours, to think again.

Mondrian is best known for his stark squares and rectangles separated by bold black lines and sometimes painted in primary colours (Credit: Alamy)

For here, it is apparent, is an artist who went through many stylistic phases, as his paintings evolved from landscapes and still lifes that looked backwards, at time-honoured Dutch traditions, to the scintillating geometric canvases for which he remains best known today.

And Janssen’s point is that, while Mondrian’s well-known grids may seem simple and straightforward, it took him many years of experimentation and hard work before he was ready to produce them. Moreover, he did so, in part, in response to the great cities where he lived – Amsterdam, Paris, London, New York – and the dramatic forces that he sensed convulsing Western society within them.

Expanding horizons

Born in Amersfoort to a strict Calvinist family, with a headmaster and amateur artist for a father, Mondrian grew up in Winterswijk, a small town to the east of the Netherlands, where the family moved in 1880. Keen to become an artist, he travelled to Amsterdam, aged 20, to study at the Academy of Fine Arts.

There was a conservative, closed-windows mentality to his early work – Hans Janssen

“In the early work that he produced, from his years in Winterswijk onwards,” says Janssen, “you can still see, let’s say, the candlelight: ie that Dutch tradition of realism, stretching back to the 17th Century. Even in Amsterdam, there was still a very conservative, closed-windows mentality.” The influence of historical Dutch art is obvious in Mondrian’s early landscapes, which do not prefigure his famous grid paintings of the ‘20s and beyond.

Mondrian took quite a long while to develop his distinctive style – even when he was 46 years old in 1918, he painted more traditionally, as in this self-portrait (Credit: Alamy)

At the same time, Amsterdam encouraged Mondrian to expand his horizons. He fraternized in cafes with intellectuals and other artists, including the Dutch-Indonesian painter Jan Toorop, who introduced him to international art movements, such as Symbolism. Mondrian also indulged his love of dancing, and spent some of the money that he earned from sales of his landscapes and commissioned portraits on fashionable clothes: throughout his life, he was impeccably and elegantly dressed.

By 1909, he felt sufficiently self-confident to depart radically from 19th Century traditions – as witnessed by the way he transformed his studio. He got rid of some old-fashioned furniture, as well as several fusty carpets and drapes, and painted the walls bright white. For the rest of his life, Mondrian always arranged his working environment sparsely and meticulously, in a way that chimed with his abstract paintings – as journalists who came to interview him often noticed.

Mondrian was born in this house in the small Dutch town of Amersfoort – today it’s a museum devoted to his life and work (Credit: Alamy)

The most dramatic breakthrough in his art, though, was precipitated three years later, in 1912, when Mondrian, aged 39, moved to Paris. At that time, the French metropolis was the world capital of progressive art.

Although, to begin with, Mondrian’s best friends in Paris were other Dutch artists, he soon widened his circle, and became aware of aesthetic developments such as Cubism. Indeed, an exhibition held the previous year in Amsterdam containing works by Picasso and Braque had initially prompted Mondrian to consider heading for Paris.

Arriving in Paris, he felt excitement. “In his first week, he wrote a postcard to a girlfriend in Amsterdam in which he said, ‘You can so wonderfully be yourself here,’” says Janssen. “Which means that in a big city, you can lose yourself. There’s no need to show off – you can simply do your thing and be happy.”

Bright lights, big city

In 1913, Mondrian enjoyed success at the annual Parisian Salon des Independants, when one of his Cubist-inspired canvases received praise from the French poet, art critic and friend of Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire. The following year, Mondrian created his first completely abstract paintings. Abandoning figuration altogether was an immense step.

Mondrian stipulated some of his paintings should be rotated to unusual angles, as in Tableau No 4, Lozenge Composition (Credit: Alamy)

When the World War One broke out, Mondrian was back in the Netherlands, where he was spending the summer. Because his homeland remained neutral during the war, he decided it would be sensible to stay put. But it is a sign of how much Paris meant to him that, as soon as he could, once the war was over, he returned there by train in 1919 – and based himself in the French capital for the next 19 years. This period coincided with the heyday of his career, when he invented and expanded the timeless vocabulary of his visionary new visual language of geometric abstraction.

According to Janssen, other aspects of Paris, beyond the sphere of visual art, also had a decisive impact on Mondrian. “Mondrian moved to Paris because he wanted to be in touch with modern culture,” Janssen explains. “Not only within the visual arts, but also in a broader sense. Take dancing, for instance. Foremost among what he encountered in Paris was modern black American culture: early jazz and dancing – the two-step and the foxtrot. And he was always there when new things happened: when Josephine Baker made her first appearance in Paris, he was there.”

Mondrian’s work was included in the Nazis’ infamous Degenerate Art exhibition

Janssen believes that there is a profound relationship between dancing and Mondrian’s art: “When you dance, reality can feel heightened. And that’s what Mondrian was searching for in his paintings: a heightened experience of reality.” Certainly, his abstract paintings have a sure grasp of visual rhythm.

Moreover, Mondrian’s passion for black American music, which had been ignited in Paris, became more intense, as he attended concerts by jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington. “I have a hypothesis,” Janssen tells me, “that he must have talked to a very young Thelonious Monk.”

The playful Broadway Boogie Woogie, from 1943, can be seen as a top-down view of Manhattan’s grid-like streets – its title indicates Mondrian’s love of jazz (Credit: Alamy)

The influence of the dynamic, syncopated rhythms that he heard in New York’s nightclubs is evident in Mondrian’s late, great compositions Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43), now in the collection of the city’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Gemeentemuseum’s unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie, the only painting that Mondrian worked on during the final year of his life.

Ultimately, the show at the Gemeentemuseum suggests that Mondrian wasn’t, as people often assume, a monk-like recluse, who devoted his life to abstract paintings with no relation to the real world. Rather, throughout his career, he engaged with, and fed off, aspects of modernity that he encountered in the cities where he lived. He loved music and clothes, always kept up with the latest developments in popular culture, including Disney cartoons, and had a vivacious love life.

Some of his early work suggests the bold use of colour that lay ahead, such as Evening, Red Tree from 1908 (Credit: Alamy)

In other words, he channelled the volatile energies that he sensed swirling through Western culture during the first half of the 20th Century – and he wasn’t afraid to let people know it.

In 1930, the American sculptor Alexander Calder, the inventor of the mobile, or moving sculpture, visited Mondrian in his studio in Paris. Janssen relates what happened: “Calder said to Mondrian, ‘Maybe you should take all these red, yellow and blue elements off the canvas and let them hang in the air, so they can move.’ Mondrian looked at him, and said: ‘Well, I think my paintings are fast enough already.’” Janssen pauses, before continuing: “And that really is the case: if you take the time to look properly at Mondrian’s [abstract] paintings, a world opens up.”

Separate the artist of the Art

Just how true is the following statement: an artist’s work should have value in its own right, no matter what sort of life the artist led, and even if they have damaged or hurt others? Perhaps we might put the answer on a sliding scale, for don’t we as a culture, hold it to be true when it comes to some artists, but not others?

Tate Britain’s current Queer British Art exhibition, which includes the work of the writer and collagist Kenneth Halliwell, is just one of a recent spate of exhibitions and film screenings that might prompt you to ask this question afresh. In 1967, in the tiny one-room flat the couple shared in north London, Halliwell bludgeoned his partner, the playwright Joe Orton, to death, before ending his own life. Clinically depressed, isolated and increasingly fearful of losing Orton, who was clearly tiring of him by then, he finally, as we’re pithily inclined to put it, ‘snapped’. Halliwell left a suicide note simply saying all would be explained in Orton’s diaries, “especially the latter part”.

The murder of Joe Orton by the artist Kenneth Halliwell was dramatised by Stephen Frears in the 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears (Credit: Alamy)

Halliwell is generally viewed sympathetically by writers and filmmakers who’ve documented his and Orton’s life together. The inclusion of one of Halliwell’s solo collages at Tate Britain appears to have invited no controversy at all. In fact, it’s Orton’s behaviour that’s hinted as being selfish or cruelly off-hand, and we’re often reminded both of Orton’s promiscuity and his rapid success as factors in driving Halliwell to such a desperate action. We’re given mitigating psychological complexities that aren’t always afforded when terrible crimes are committed, but I also wonder if, at its heart, there’s an unstated sense here of Orton’s culpability in his own murder.

Clearly it’s tempting to ask, would this be the case had Orton been female? It’s interesting to ponder how differently institutions today might view the power dynamics if that relationship had been a heterosexual one; how eager might they be to establish Halliwell as an artist in his own right alongside his female victim?

Outline of a dispute

One artist whose work is of far greater importance than Halliwell’s is the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. He is still alive and has never been short of major museum shows. Andre was married to the artist Ana Mendieta until her death in 1985, in what many still regard as suspicious circumstances. Mendieta fell to her death from the couple’s high-rise apartment in New York, and in 1988 Andre was acquitted of second-degree murder.

Artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from the 34th floor of her New York apartment in 1985 – her husband Carl Andre was charged with her murder, then acquitted (Credit: Mendieta)

But despite the acquittal, Andre’s exhibitions have been dogged by protests by feminist activists and fellow artists. One performative protest saw demonstrators pour and smear red paint outside a gallery where his work was being shown. This was both an homage to Mendieta’s powerful performances in which she smeared herself and her surroundings with blood and a reminder of the violence of her death. And just last month, those attending a private view of Andre’s current show at the Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles – an outline of the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) – were greeted with a carpet of fabric laid at the museum’s entrance, on which rows of candles were placed and where outlines of bodies had been painted. Once again this was strongly reminiscent of the ritualistic aspects of Mendieta’s own body-imprint earth works, as well as a an imitation of police forensics. In addition, postcards were handed out with an image of Mendieta accompanied by the text: “Carl Andre is at Moca Geffen.

When the Ditchling Museum re-opened in 2013 after a major refurbishment, none of Gill’s abuses were addressed, though of course anyone who knew about them couldn’t help but be reminded when confronted by, for instance, a sensual and intimate drawing of his young daughter Petra in the bath. What you saw was altered by what you knew.

None of that demands that the work be censored. But context probably does matter. Gill carved many monuments and relief sculptures throughout his life, including the figures of Prospero and Ariel on the exterior of the BBC’s old Broadcasting House headquarters. He was also a practicing Catholic, and carved religious icons and altarpieces for churches and cathedrals throughout the UK, including his impressive Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral. When MacCarthy’s book came out, there was a concerted campaign to rid the cathedral of this celebrated work. One might imagine the mixed feelings of some worshippers when confronted with these ‘inappropriate’ holy images, which are there, after all, to offer moral guidance, sustenance and solace. But it seems most have now come to terms with these works.

Does time absolve an artist of his or her crimes? Caravaggio was a murderer and a likely pederast, and yet that just makes him seem like a ‘bad boy’ for many (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Ditchling museum itself has now had a radical rethink: central to their current exhibition, Eric Gill: The Body, is the question of how knowledge of Gill’s abusive behaviour affects our impressions of his work, some of which is sexually and anatomically explicit. When organising the exhibition, the museum took advice from several charities who work with sexual abuse survivors.

Gill died in 1940, but we think today of others in the public eye and the continued controversy that surrounds them. Film directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen come to mind and the utterly polarised reactions they both elicit, though both continue to work as productively as ever.

And of course, it’s never just about the work. What we do when we celebrate an artist is often to bolster the myth of their life. We do this with Caravaggio exactly because we’re fascinated by his earthy and seductive ‘bad boy’ image. That roughness and that sexuality makes him feel alive to us and incredibly modern, as alive as the figures in his paintings. And we do this with Oscar Wilde, who we celebrate today for exactly those things that ensured his condemnation in life.