When I’m not overthinking popular culture, I study art history. It’s been my passion since I was 10, and it hasn’t abated over the years. My younger self was given a short guide to five artists of the Italian Renaissance, and immediately was captivated not only by the gorgeous work of Botticelli, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Fra Angelico, but also by the men themselves and the times they lived in.
Several years later, I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, the highly fictionalized “biographical novel” about Michelangelo, which traces his life from around age 14 until his death. For me, the attraction wasn’t just about Michelangelo’s incredibly passionate and deeply humanistic paintings and sculptures, but about how these works told us so much about the man himself—about his thundering temper (memorably captured by Charlton Heston in the film adaptation of the book), his stirring love for God and mankind alike, his fascination with the (male) human body, his self-critical nature, his inability to be satisfied.
For those of us who study art history, especially historical art history, learning about great works is more often than not accompanied by familiarization with the person who made those works. In many cases, separating the art from the artist, as the dictum goes, leads to a fractured decontextualization of the body of work. When you treat works of art (or work in any media, for that matter) as divorced from the person whose mind, heart, and body conceived them, when you treat them as if they simply dropped from the sky, fully-formed, into our laps, something important is lost.