The Artist vs. The Art - une femme d'un certain âge

The Artist vs. The Art

Over the weekend, we had the pleasure of watching Coco Avant Chanel (subtitled, bien sur). Those of you who are interested in fashion, vintage clothing or Chanel herself will probably enjoy this movie, as will anyone who enjoys period dramas, complete with lovely sets and costumes. The performances were very good and I liked that the story often alluded to images and influences that helped to shape Chanel’s aesthetic, which kept this from being just another movie about the personal life and romantic entanglements of some historical figure. (Whether the specific circumstances shown are historically accurate is doubtful; there’s a lot of play with timelines and condensing for the sake of good filmmaking. This is not a documentary.) Those same stylistic elements that drew me to classic Chanel designs are emphasized: simplicity, function, comfort, elegance. And of course lots of black, black, black. The movie does not downplay her opportunism or the calculating way she set out to find and seduce wealthy men in order to better her own circumstances. Of course, l’amour happens too. The story leaves off once she’s opened her Paris atelier, then picks up with an epilogue which seems to be set sometime in the early 1960’s from the look of the clothing.

Chanel’s opportunism did not end once she achieved success as a designer and businesswoman though, and what’s often glossed over today was her cozy relationship with the Nazis during the WWII German occupation of France.

Paris during the occupation was a compromising and uncomfortable place for other artists and writers, who tended to keep their heads down: “Oh, I am not looking for risks to take,” said Picasso, her friend, “but in a sort of passive way I do not care to yield to either force or terror.”

Edith Piaf sang in nightclubs for the Nazis. Jean-Paul Sartre said: “Everything we did was equivocal. We never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong. A subtle poison corrupted even our best actions.”

But Chanel was unequivocal. She decided to place herself snugly in the enemy’s bosom, conveniently near to her shop. After the Paris invasion she fled to the country, but returned a year later to demand back her room at the Ritz, which had been commandeered by the Germans. There, aged 56, she shacked up with von Dincklage, a German playboy officer 13 years her junior, who may have been a spy and was known frivolously as “Spatz” or sparrow.

…[after the war] Chanel was arrested and soon released, though no one knows exactly who among the Allies protected her.

…Chanel and her perfume royalties went into exile in Switzerland for a decade, because she was most definitely not wanted at home.

Chanel made a comeback in 1956. The French papers panned her collection as old hat: she was not forgiven. But across the Atlantic, the Americans just loved those bags and little black dresses. Sales grew, Chanel was rehabilitated, and history faded away. Now she is merely a brand in Karl Lagerfeld’s hands.

Knowing this, I’ve been at times a bit conflicted about loving (and buying) accessories, perfumes, and maquillage bearing the name Chanel, and with being so perpetually entranced with her designs and vision. On the other hand, she is long dead, and the business continues to be owned and run by the Wertheimer family who initally financed Parfums Chanel in 1920’s and successfully quashed her attempt to take over the company during the Nazi occupation.

But it begs the larger question, at what point do the foibles, failings or even crimes of the artist outweigh the value of their art? Coco Chanel. Elia Kazan. Miles Davis. Picasso. Woody Allen. These are just a few of the people whose work I have loved, depsite knowing things about their personal lives and choices that I find disturbing. I don’t have an answer for this. Creative genius often seems to go hand-in-hand with being, well…a self-involved asshole. (And yes, astounding assholery can be present even when discernable talent is absent, see Mayer, John.) As Jeff Goldblum’s character in the movie “The Big Chill” says, “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations.”

Does the personal/public life of the artist impact how you view their art? Have you ever found an action or attitude so unforgiveable that it forever sways your view of the work? Or do you keep the two separate?

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  1. March 9, 2010 / 1:22 pm

    An important subject and post. This is a matter of ethics, and each person will decide. One aspect is the political or moral stance associated with the maker(s). Another is the manner of production, e.g., sweatshop labour. A key consideration: does the original designer/artist own the company (or a significant share), or profit directly from my patronage? In the case of Chanel, we are no longer feathering her nest, in the case of Allen, for example, we are.

    There is a very well known chef in my city who was prone to domestic violence. I happened to have seen it close up. To this day I will not dine at his restaurant.

  2. March 9, 2010 / 3:01 pm

    The purist in me says that art, like justice, should be blind. In this superficial, celebrity, 24-hour news culture we live in, of course, that’s nearly impossible. And most of the time, a little controversy only increases sales. Alec Baldwin may be an asshole, but I don’t like his movies any less, probably since it wasn’t me he was yelling at. But if, like Duchesse, something affected my local community or me personally, I might feel differently.

  3. March 9, 2010 / 3:21 pm

    I was taught in college to separate artist from the art. Structuralism and all that. But I don’t think it’s possible to really ignore. If I knew of a situation like Duchesse’s example, where the person was living, and my actions could have a direct impact, I’d probably make the same choice. With Woody Allen, it makes no difference to him or the world what I do, so am less inclined to take action. Pragmatic. But also less purely moral. I’m sure Vichy thought they were pragmatists as well. It takes a unique person to act in a purely moral way, when the only impact to is one’s sense of self. I’m not up to it.

  4. March 9, 2010 / 3:23 pm

    I’m with Sarah and Duchesse. But it’s a difficult question. I think that for individuals no longer alive, it may be easier to ignore the negative factors, but still maintain some awareness. The ethical dilemma comes in with living people like Alec Baldwin. I don’t know.

    I liked the Coco movie, except the part whenre the love of her life is coming to her & dies in an accident along the way. Too similar to the Edith Piaf movie.

  5. aaonce
    March 9, 2010 / 5:15 pm

    Provocative topic. I do not choose to keep an artist separate from their work. What they see and how they interpret the world around them influences their art (the final product). An artist (or even a company) can have any opinion they want to. I don’t have to agree with it, and I can demonstrate my opinion by not supporting them financially. That is the benefit of our consumer society. My lack of finacial support may not change the mind of the artist (or company), but they will feel the impact of their opinion. I don’t require that they change their mind, but I also don’t have to support their foolishness. Money has always had the power to change things in this society–for better or for worse. That said, people are flawed. Some flaws you can live with and some you can’t. If there is something about a person that bothers you, don’t financially support them. In the case of Coco, she is dead. Wear her shoes in peace. As Duchesse said, “we are no longer feathering her nest”.

  6. March 9, 2010 / 6:26 pm

    My, Pseu, what an extraordinary post. It’s rare when we’re called upon to do some serious soul-searching.

    My impulse is to say, no I cannot separate the two. Then my opinion (I hate to use the word ethics) becomes nuanced by situations. Chanel’s behavior was reprehensible and finally she paid dearly for her cowardice or opportunism or however she saw it.

    I would like to think I would not support in any way someone who is an amoral or immoral egotistical asshole. Let’s hope I can be true to myself, so far so good I think.

    I do not own any vintage Chanel. I wonder whether the reason no film has been made on that episode for commercial reasons. I suppose we’ll never know.

    Merci, cherie.

  7. March 9, 2010 / 7:44 pm

    Great post, Miss Pseu. Indeed, assholery abounds, esp when large egos are involved. Miss Janey found it appalling that Elia Kazan was given an Oscar. She doesn’t care what ground he broke as a director. He named names- and he wasn’t facing a firing squad. People lost jobs, careers- People KILLED themselves over that shiz!

    We do live in a age when its easier than ever to discover what companies & people are doing with the $ we give them… Check the interwebs! Kenneth Cole donates $ to Amfar & Rock the vote. Miss J is happy to buy his shoes and bags- luckily they’re well-made & to her liking.

    Miss J believes the public can be an influence, at least to a some degree. And some a-holes Do pay for their sins. Russell Crowe’s career has never returned to its pre phone-throwing success. Hahaha!
    Miss J will NEVER EVER again watch a movie of his, and that goes double for Mel Gibson.

  8. Lisa
    March 9, 2010 / 1:33 pm

    Yes, and the older I get the more impassioned I am about it. The two who immediately come to mind are Marion Cotillard for saying the US government perpetrated the attacks of 9/11 on its own citizens, which was not only ignorant but cruel, and Alec Baldwin who apparently has some serious anger issues. After listening to a recording of him berating his young daughter by phone, I can barely stand to look at him. This is also part of the reason I don’t watch the Academy Awards anymore. Hollywood is populated by too many narcissistic fools in general. Not everyone, of course, I have to give kudos to Sandra Bullock. She seems delightful.

  9. Sal
    March 9, 2010 / 2:16 pm

    I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed this film, as it’s been on my list for ages.

    And the question of whether to support the art of artists with questionable morals or values that clash with our own? It’s so hard to make a cut-and-dried call. Sometimes I feel like Cult of Personality issues are clouding my ability to enjoy certain works, as if the artist’s personal life is invading my experience. Other times, I can overlook it. I’m sure that everyone will agree it’s a personal call to be made on a case by case basis.

  10. March 9, 2010 / 10:23 pm

    If I don’t approve of a singer or pop star’s life, do I still listen to his/her music? Of course I do! The greatest genius of all times was a womanizer. Do I hate him? Why should I! It didn’t stop his work and discoveries!
    Channel shacked up with a Nazi. So what?! It didn’t reduce the beauty and ingenuity of her designs. Van Gogh was a drunkard. Hemingway too was a cruel drunk. Should we stop enjoying their works because they had a darker side?
    I don’t understand what’s the big deal here. We are not marrying (or even dating) artists. We enjoy their art, pure and simple!
    Ummm, I am bushing hard here! I got a little carried away! It is a subject I am passionate about. I don’t look at artists (and scientists, writers,…) as idols to approve or disapprove of their personal lives. As long as they are acting within law and not hurting others, their lives are their owns.

  11. Arabella
    March 9, 2010 / 3:03 pm

    I read TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf and always will, aware of the context of Modernist anti-semitism and their personal lives. I refused to buy a German car, furious about WW2 reparations or the lack of; in the end the VW bought for safety reasons proved to be a literal life-saver. I stopped wearing my favourite perfume because I couldn’t stand Chanel No 5’s association with Nicole Kidman.
    An ethical mess!

  12. March 10, 2010 / 12:25 am

    No one knows who protected her? Edmonde Charles-Roux all but comes right out in “Chanel and Her World” to say it was Winston Churchill himself.

  13. March 10, 2010 / 2:55 am

    Duchesse – thanks! This topic has been brewing in my head for a while. I think the “whose nest is being feathered” yardstick is a good one.

    Lisa – I wasn’t aware of the Marion Cotillard remark. So many people said stupid or callous things in the wake of 9/11. It certainly brought out the idiocy in some people.

    Sal – from the wide range of responses here today, it does seem to be a very personal decision.

  14. March 10, 2010 / 3:00 am

    SarahN – yes, I think it does tend to depend on how much we feel personally impacted by the words or behavior.

    Arabella – oh dear, Nicole Kidman? What did she do?

    LPC – you make a good point. I try to achieve a workable balance between the idealism and pragmatism. The line isn’t always a solid one.

  15. March 10, 2010 / 3:08 am

    Rita – yes, it is easier when someone isn’t with us any longer, and we can also make some allowances for attitudes that were a product of the times.

    aaonce – it’s true that we can always “vote with our wallet.”

    Tish Jett – I’m sure that anyone who tried to make a movie about that part of Chanel’s life would soon find themselves on the wrong end of lawsuits. Not that it wasn’t true, but the cost to fight would be so high no studio would touch it.

  16. March 10, 2010 / 3:20 am

    Miss Janey – oh me too on Mel Gibson! So wrong on so many levels! Russell Crowe and Robert Downey Jr. for that matter…well I still find their performances compelling despite their histories of personal problems and bad behavior.

    Kalee – it *is* a tangled topic and I’ve enjoyed everyone’s thoughtful responses! I’m sure Karl isn’t a pleasant person to be around, but I don’t know that he’s achieved boycott-worthy levels or evil…yet. 😉 I don’t research every label or company I purchase from either, though if information comes my way, I’ll certainly factor it in.

    Aradia – for the most part I agree with you. I don’t care if this singer or that actor said something stupid or goes into rehab or cheats on their SO or whatever. But sometimes lines get crossed. I sure wouldn’t support someone who openly supported a white supremacist group, for example, even thought it’s legal.

  17. March 10, 2010 / 3:23 am

    Frugal Scholar – it’s true that some of the older “great works” are rife with racism or anti-Semitism. Someone told me today that L. Frank Baum (who wrote Wizard of Oz books that I loved so much as a kid) was a notorious anti-Semite and tried to get anti-Jewish laws enacted in his home state.

    Phyllis – which makes me wonder, why would Churchill do this? Perhaps because of Chanel’s friendship with the Windsors?

  18. Kalee
    March 9, 2010 / 8:36 pm

    I think this is such a tangled topic. I know myself, that I choose to not buy some things based on not wanting to support a company. I adore the cheap trendy pieces you can buy at H&M since I’m generally a classic girl and don’t invest much in trends, but when I heard how the dealt with excess merchandise, I decided to not shop their any more (though if I see something at a thrift store that I think is cute, I buy it, figuring I am not supporting them directly).

    As for Chanel, well, I have yet to decide whether or not I hate Karl Lagerfield (leaning towards the yes on that one), and her life has some questionable parts to it. I would love some vintage pieces (I agree with Duchesse, we’re no longer feathering her nest) but am unsure if I would ever buy something new at this point.

    That being said, I admit I do not look up every artist, house of fashion, etc that I make purchases from, though I do keep in mind what I hear. Same goes for actors in films.

  19. Frugal Scholar
    March 9, 2010 / 11:52 pm

    This took an unexpected turn! Great post. As an ardent English major, I read everything and tried to ignore the political/ethical issues. Now I am pained by the often overt racist/anti-semitic etc views in the works of my heretofore favorite writers. Some I can no longer read…
    Luckily, I teach a lot of OLD stuff. It is easier to forgive Shakepeare than to forgive 20th century writers.

    As for films–au revoir Mel Gibson.

  20. March 10, 2010 / 10:26 am


    I can hate her Nazi Collaboration and love her Art. I don’t know why, I just can. You should get your mitts on the V and A’s Chanel Couturier at Work- one my my Favourite books. And my fave museum xxxxxx

  21. neki desu
    March 10, 2010 / 9:49 am

    difficult question indeed.
    when looking at picasso’s work i can’t refrain from thinking what a bastard he was.but he nevertheless advanced civilization and art with his work.
    he is far away from my circle of influence(as well as dead)so i do not feel morally obliged to take a stand.boycotting his work or crusading against it would put me in extremely non desirable company. methinks.

  22. Kalee
    March 10, 2010 / 3:05 pm

    I too am wondering what Nicole Kidman did….

  23. Arabella
    March 10, 2010 / 3:13 pm

    I could tell you but then I would have to kill you…

    Nah – how can I put it politely? I don’t enjoy her oeuvre.

  24. March 11, 2010 / 1:10 am

    I didn’t see that movie, but I read, “The Gospel According to Coco Chanel.” The author made me like Chanel, in spite of everything…
    But I do think our opinion of the PERSON definitely influences are opinion of their art.
    Great post. Thank you!

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