Walking on the Wild Side: The Bad Boys of the Art World

Without wanting to sound like your average fangirl, there’s something about a bad boy, dashingly attractive, charismatic, and uncompromising, but at the same time mysterious, menacing, and off-limits. Part of the allure is that they seem like impenetrable fortresses, forever out of reach. But, in the world of art which is, after all, a competitive business like any other but with extra vanity, thin is the line between bad and downright terrible, as evidenced by what we know of some of the most iconic figures in art history. And just because we are capable of distinguishing between an artist’s life and their work, does not mean that we are not at least slightly curious about who they were in real life, and the revelations are, quite often, intriguing.

art appropriation

Drawing the Line Between Bad & Terrible

Brace yourself, a broad generalization is coming: artists are notoriously bad-tempered and difficult to live and work with. In no way does this statement apply to all artists everywhere, but historically, it is a reputation held by creatives with celebrity status. They are often forgiven for any wrongdoings. We cannot help it: we think of them as divine beings. Because they are so gifted and so unique, they can get away with pretty much anything. We romanticize them and find excuses for them and forget that just because someone is a master of their craft does not mean that they deserve to be the object of our admiration. 

But they’re only human, after all. When an artist or any other historical figure has been dead for decades or even centuries, it is easy to forget that they can be as flawed as the rest of us, possibly even more because of the personality cult around them. There is, after all, the psychological mindset of being famous that we have to take into account. We are virtually blinded by their light and our biases, and this renders us incompetent of objective, critical thinking.

Callousness as Fodder for Creativity

caravaggio thug

We see their freedom of spirit as the driving force of their art. They are allowed this unshackled philosophy of unconventional living. They get to set and follow their own sets of rules. All of this makes bad boys sound like movie heartthrobs and you just can’t wait to peel the layers off and get to the juicy nectar of what has got to be vulnerability and innocence at the core.

However, throughout the history of art, many truly great artists had a nasty reputation. Nothing romantic about it. Instead of the disarmingly wicked James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause” or the deviously sexy Mickey Rourke in “9 ½ Weeks”, it’s all more leaning toward the psychopathic, manipulative, downright disturbing performance delivered by Penn Badgley in the Netflix hit series “You”. The charisma is there on the surface. But after that’s gone, it’s all drama, lunacy, maniacal tendencies, impulsive actions, and sociopathic games without the charm. 

If that sounds a bit harsh, it could be. If it sounds overly simplistic, it definitely is. Not everything that a person does is a reflection of who they are. Even the most heinous acts may be a one-off thing. But judging by numerous chronicles, there is a pattern, and its one defining feature is the absence of a moral compass.

Of course, as reasonable adults, we are perfectly capable of separating someone’s artistic capacity from their personality and behavior. But it can be a valuable lesson. If not in art history, then maybe in how we perceive public figures, celebrities, influencers, and other movers and shakers of our time.

This is the story of several iconic, groundbreaking individuals who paved the way for generations of artists, but who mistreated others in their lives. These artists changed the world, but it was often the people closest to them who paid the price.

From Bad to Worse: Cheat, Steal, Kill?

Without further ado, we’re delving deeper into the seedy underbelly of art history with a narrow focus on some of history’s greatest artists who, rumor has it, weren’t exactly the greatest of characters. Fair warning: this bunch makes it really difficult to separate the art from the artist.

Dalí: a Self-Obsessed Pervert You Wouldn’t Want Around

dali cats photo

His toxic relationship with Gala aside, the eccentric Surrealist Superstar stands accused of many things. He is being called a maniacal, cruel sadist. A violent sexist. A smug, self-centered masochist who believed himself to be the reincarnation of his own dead brother. A ferocious fascist. A money-hungry mass producer that habitually went to extremes. And all these accusations are based.

Much of the bizarre evidence can be found in the self-obsessed painter’s 1942 autobiography, where he admits to having necrophilic impulses and indirectly, to a disturbing lack of empathy. He would throw himself down the stairs to attract attention as a child. He kicked his 3-year-old sister in the head as if it were a ball, and he also pushed a friend off a 15-foot bridge when he was just 5.

There’s even photographic proof of the adult Dalí’s insatiable sadistic tendencies: three cats flying through the air while water is being thrown on them. Allegedly, it took 28 takes for the photograph, taken by Philippe Halsman in 1948, to get Dalí’s seal of approval. Still better than his original idea to blow up a living duck for the purposes of the photo session? The creator of the Surrealist Movement Andre Breton sneerily nicknamed Dalí Avida Dollars. The anagram stands for Love of Dollars, and this personified the greedy Spaniard perfectly.

He also committed fraud when he flooded the art market with his signatures. He would put his signature on blank pieces of paper which were used to print forgeries of his work, a practice that made him a fortune. It doesn’t actually help his case that even the great George Orwell called him a good draughtsman but a disgusting human being. Oh, and let’s not forget his slightly sexualized obsession with Hitler. The die-hard left-leaning surrealists actually kicked Salvador Dalí out because of his fascist worldviews.

Picasso: The Unhinged Misogynist


Picasso is one of the most famous artists in history. And he knew it, which explains the arrogance. But it is not only Picasso’s iconic works of art that outlived him. There are also entertaining anecdotes, his anti-fascist activism, but also his reputation as a misogynist and a chronic womanizer. He may have been and always will be a hotshot in art history, but he was a bully to the women who loved him. Safe to say, if he were alive today, he would have been canceled in a heartbeat.

Caravaggio: The Murdering Pimp

The tale of Caravaggio is dark and twisted (hence the allure, duh). If his life was a painting, it would have showcased chiaroscuro, a technique Caravaggio himself devised and perfected. But it also has all the elements of a classic Hollywood thriller. The troublemaker lived a truly brutal life, thug life if you will. He was an artistic genius capable of perfectly depicting all of life’s beauty and misery, the heights of compassion and the depths of despair, but he was also a philanderer, a regular in brawls, and might have even dabbled in pimping. Eventually, on one faithful night, he blew the fuse and murdered someone. He then fled Rome to avoid being sentenced to death. The rest of his life was a tragic tale, and many of his greatest works are believed to have been painted as penance.

Bob Kane: The Unapologetic Thief

Bob Kane co-created Batman. The issue is that he never acknowledged the contribution of his collaborator Bill Finger. But let’s go back to the start. It was Bob Kane who came up with the concept of Batman. Well, not exactly. He came up with the concept of Batman, but it wasn’t the concept. It was Bill Finger that took over and gave life to the Batman that we know and love by introducing some of the most iconic elements and characters to the story. The problem is that Kane got all the credit and went out of his way to hide Finger’s involvement. Finger died broke and in obscurity.

Roy Lichtenstein: What’s Yours Is Mine?

Speaking of using other people’s work, a dishonorable mention goes to Roy Lichtenstein, Pop Art icon who, according to both allegations and evidence, had a taste for other people’s creative works. While he was busy making a fortune, the original creators were never even credited for their work. Lichtenstein has been facing numerous plagiarism accusations, although his defendants prefer to call it appropriation. If Lichtenstein were alive to defend his case, the ruling might be in his favor. For instance, when photographer Richard Prince was sued over copyright infringement, the court decided that his use of other people’s photographs was “transformative”.

The Art vs. The Artist: Essential Separation

art vs the artist

As people who share a deep love for art, this might be redundant but just in case, let’s get one thing straight: we have to separate the art from the artist. As atrociously bad as human beings they were, Dalí, Picasso and the rest of the Bad Batch are ultimately remembered as these incredible, hugely influential artists who massively contributed to the advancement of the art and paved the way for numerous generations of artists that followed and that are yet to come. What they have left behind is a sufficient reason to celebrate them as part of our legacy as humankind. What they were like does not diminish the role they played in the history of art and our civilization.

But because we as humans also have an inherent tendency to idealize and romanticize the artists we so admire, it might be useful to remember, from time to time, the lack of basic human qualities on their part and discuss the fact that being great at something doesn’t grant a licence to abuse to anyone, however marvellous their accomplishments. 

After all, giving preferential treatment to a select few is what makes our society toxic in the first place. Making an example of the oh-so-great but oh-so-terrible global icons may help make the world a better place, as corny and overused as that may sound. After all, we have to be careful about the message we send to future generations, and the bigger the name used as an example, the larger the ripple effect.