Men who hurt women: The sanctification of male artists

Why does the art of violent men endure?

Art by Amelia Mertha

Indro Montanelli was an Italian writer, journalist and historian, considered a hero of the Italian press, and decorated with an Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and in the mid-1930s, he bought and raped a child.

In 2020, a long-overdue conversation started (or rather, continued more loudly) in Italy by Black Lives Matter activists about the place of Montanelli in academia and journalism. His justification for his actions and the arguments of his defenders were always rooted in deep colonial racism and misogyny.

His defenders admit to this abhorrent fact, whilst often subtly excusing it by stating that child marriage and rape was a common practice among the Italian soldiers who massacred their way through Ethiopia. The fact that it was a common practice should be additionally shocking, but Montanelli’s participation in this infliction of violence upon African women and children remains an individual choice, as is the racist and misogynist equivocation to excuse it. 

Many outside of Italy or journalism have likely not heard of him, but his influence has been felt in the field since he founded Il Giornale, one of the largest daily newspapers in Italy. When his name was brought up again in the media with the surge of Black Lives Matter protests internationally, Montanelli’s actions and the talk around him represented a familiar story. There is a discourse surrounding artists and academics like Montanelli to have their lives “judged in their totality”, as argued by Milanese Mayor Giuseppe Sala. The sentiment is that the art must be separated from the actions and even the personal beliefs of the artist.

As a result; violent, racist, misogynistic men remain in positions of national and international reverence and prestige. Men who hurt women surround us in university reading lists promoting F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Neruda. There are museums with entire buildings dedicated to Picasso, Netflix specials featuring Louis C.K. and Chris D’Elia, and artists who find it continually justifiable to work with Dr Luke.

The kingpin of artistic forgiveness is arguably Pablo Picasso. However, another dead Pablo is considered Chile’s national poet, whose homes have been converted into public museums, and who described in his 1974 Memoirs raping a member of his staff in 1925. This has been nothing but a grim footnote in Pablo Neruda’s life and legacy.

The ability to forgive transgressions that we, as a society, should consider unforgivable or at least career-ending is not restricted to white men (see the continued success and wealth of Chris Brown). But for these figures, their privilege renders them far more likely to obtain such positions of cultural reverence and international acclaim. Once challenged, the collective that gave this reverence to them is extremely reluctant to let them go. 

The discourse of separating the art from the artist undeniably privileges certain artists above others. It perpetuates a harsh artistic landscape where the bodies of women and children are mere collateral damage. It also represents the massive overvaluing of this art in relation to their wider influences (particularly women and minority groups), whose art and ideas people like Picasso, Neruda and Montanelli exploit.

Firstly, it is important to discuss the obvious problems with this discourse that promotes the separation of the violent artist or academic from their esteemed body of work. Certainly, the abusiveness of Picasso and the rape committed by Neruda are known and discussed, however marginally and unsatisfactorily. Montanelli’s child marriage and rape have filtered in and out of public conversation since the 1960s, with varying degrees of horror and disgust. The loud resurgence of these conversations in 2020 provoked much the same response from the Italian establishment, showing that, against gradual changes in public response, communities are generally unswayed to rethink their idols. 

The process of rethinking is important, as the argument to separate the art from the artist strongly implies that such art is not informed by, and is not the unique product of racist or femicidal violence. Many of Montanelli’s articles are littered with racist ideology, supporting Italy’s colonial devastation of Africa. The violence he committed against the 12-year-old he married wasn’t an inconvenient exception to the “totality” of his life, it was entirely consistent with it. Similarly, it has been argued that the “love” depicted in Neruda’s most famous poems are nothing more than a need for possession, and an obsession with women as either pure or sexual beings, in lineation with the Madonna-whore complex. Sexual objectification has also been noted as an overarching theme throughout Neruda’s works.

It appears that as long as an artwork isn’t obscenely grotesque, the discourse around it excuses all “external factors” that are seemingly irrelevant to public discussion. It allows people in this discourse to see this work as a separate entity unconnected to its creator’s actions and extreme prejudices. On the contrary, much of Picasso’s art documented his abusive nature and sexual violence, as seen in Le Rêve; a sexualised painting of Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he began grooming as a teenager. Furthermore, the museums where his work is admired are purposefully absent of the works of his former lovers like Dora Maar, who was artistically suppressed by Picasso, and Françoise Gilot, whom Picasso attempted to blacklist from the art market.

So why such cognitive dissonance? Simply put, this discourse maligns the experience of women whilst sanctifying white male art for being precisely that, deemed irreplaceable by any other artist. To proponents of this discourse, the artwork of Gilot can simply never measure up. In the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, we saw fans of Louis C.K.’s satirical comedy cling to him as a master of the art form, rather than turning to the standup of the likes of Maria Bamford or Ali Wong. Similarly, Picasso’s cubist mapping of human nature, love, and war was not wholly unique to him (considering the innumerable anonymous African artists that Picasso denied the existence of in his “African Period”). The groundbreaking techniques and symbols for which Picasso gained his acclaim are displayed spectacularly in the paintings of Baya Mahieddine or the surrealist photography of Dora Maar. 

Neither Picasso’s entire artistic output, nor each line composed by Neruda, or every article of Montanelli’s, should be disregarded or collectively forgotten. First and foremost, to do so would erase important pieces of evidence about the violent artist contained within, and the experiences of the women and children hurt. Like Neruda, men in positions of power can and do abuse their authority to hurt and threaten the women in their employ with little to no repercussions. And like Picasso, repeated patterns of abuse and violence are a burden that many women feel they need to bear in exchange for security and love. Picasso’s proud habit of “destroying” the women he left sadly proves them right. Their artwork should stand as evidence of this, not as a shield against public scrutiny and justified outrage. 

This sort of cognitive dissonance continues to fail the women and children victimised by Picasso, Neruda and Montanelli, as the truth of their stories cannot be read properly alongside the blurred narratives built around these artists. It continues to erase their lived experience, just as these artists would hope.