I was intrigued today by an item on the CBC radio news on my way to work (for more information,  http://www.cbc.ca/arts/books/story/2008/10/21/ot-scott-081021.html). An Ottawa-area poet won the Lampman-Scott Award, given annually by the Arc Poetry Magazine to a book of poetry by a resident of the National Capital Region, that includes a $1500 cash prize. Shane Rhodes then donated half of this money to the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health to draw attention to the fact that one of the namesakes of the award (Duncan Campbell Scott) was not only a famous Canadian poet from the late 1800s, but also the head of Indian Affairs from 1913-1932 and was responsible for some of the most damaging legislation affecting Canada’s Natives in our history. His policy of assimilation lead to the disastrous Residential School System, for which Harper recently apologized. Scott once famously said: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem.” Not a very nice man, to put it lightly.

This got me thinking: is it possible to truly separate art from the artist? How much influence should a person’s thoughts, words and actions have on how we interpret and appreciate the art they produce? Some might argue that unless it is directly represented in the piece, an artist’s personal life should not affect our judgement of the work they produce. But doesn’t knowing about someone’s background, about their thoughts and how they lived (or live, for those still alive), the choices they made…wouldn’t that all serve to help us better understand what they were trying to communicate through their artwork, even if it wasn’t directly addressed?

Imagine this: you are visiting an art gallery and are struck by an exquisite painting hanging on the wall. Its lines are clean, the image moving and the technique is flawless. This painting touches you deeply and you move across the room to inspect it more closely. You can picture it hanging over your living room couch or across from the kitchen table where you sip your morning coffee. Curious, you lean forward to read the information card on the wall and are horrified to learn that it was painted by Adolf Hitler.

Would your opinion of the painting change? I know mine would, almost involuntarily.

But should it?