When CNN asked New York Magazine art critic Jerry Salz to comment on George Zimmerman’s painting of an American flag being auctioned off on eBay (with bids running over $100,000), Salz commented on Zimmerman.
He said the auction was “a desecration of Trayvon Martin's memory,” a reference, of course, to Zimmerman’s recent acquittal in Martin’s death, and called Zimmerman “a murderer and a psychotic.”
True or not, it’s clear that Saltz stepped out of his area of expertise. I’ve done this, too. When New York Times art critic John Russell praised a Degas show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington saying Degas' "reserves of human sympathy grow stronger and more pertinent the older we get," I wrote that it was hard to reconcile Degas’ “human sympathy” with his known anti-Semitism, particularly his fierce defense of the anti-Semitic French military court that falsely charged, convicted and sentenced to life on Devil's Island an army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, who was an Alsatian Jew.
Even when the actual traitor was identified and even when the French army suppressed the evidence and refused to free Dreyfus, Degas continued to rail publicly against Dreyfus. When one of his models told him that she believed in Dreyfus' innocence, Degas reportedly yelled at her, "You are Jewish, you are Jewish," and ordered her out of his studio. (The model was Protestant, by the way).
All that said, does Degas' bigotry have anything to do with his superb draftsmanship or his ability to capture the transitory and the momentary? If we decide that an artist’s behavior should affect our view of his work, there’s an awful lot of art history that would need to be re-written. I’m thinking of Renoir who refused to have his work exhibited in the same show with the Jewish artists and fellow Impressionist Camille Pissarro.
And Caravaggio, the celebrated 17th-century painter of religious works, had an uninterrupted record of crimes, including murder. Then there was the Renaissance painter Giovantonio Bazzi, who bore the nickname "Sodoma" for – well, you know. But Sodoma enjoyed great renown because of the excellence of his art.
There’s not enough space to list all the scoundrels. Adding them up, several excellent artists in history have been charged with rape, incest, murder and larceny – offenses that would land people in jail today.
Questions about Zimmerman painting ought to be limited to the painting. It looks familiar, likely a found image that he photo-shopped - not worthy of discussion. Feel free to disagree.