Ideas of the Artist: the Standard Models
When ideas about art and artists get reified and ossified, they solidify into archetypes, unspoken assumptions, stereotypes, and clichés. Few things can kill the creative process faster than running afoul of one of these jagged islands in the collective consciousness. Writers don't write, or appreciate their readers, only out of ego-reinforcement. While the ego inflates itself on praise, the genuine encounter with the genuine reader in fact transcends the ego's limits.
In Western culture, over the past three of centuries, numerous ideas about artists have emerged and been considered. But two main ideas have become dominant: the romantic model, based on the idea that the artist is a lonely, oft-misunderstood Hero; and the marketplace model, based on the assumptions of commerce and the paid performing arts.
Here’s what Robert Grudin has written about these two dominant ideas:
In the romantic model, artists see themselves as brooding, solitary figures, married to art and in search of truth. Their encounters with audience, though sometimes seasoned with revelry or adulation, are ultimately oil-and-water affairs with no lasting effects. Why oil and water? Because the romantic model stipulates that writers have self-consciousness and social awareness, while audiences necessarily don’t. Although such writers may feel grateful to their readers, it is subdued affection, arched across the channel of their alienation.
In the marketplace model, writers are technician-entrepreneurs whose goals are profit and fame. Like other performers and hucksters, they have an ambivalent view of audience: they need customers, but realize that successful selling involves a degree of concealment an deceit. They are willing to indulge and flatter their audiences, to flirt with them and clown it up in front of them, in quest of personal glory and financial triumph. But these activities make it impossible for writers to identify with their readership. If romantic writers are alienated by virtue of their self-conceit and self-consciousness, marketplace writers are alienated by virtue of their greed and ambition.
These models, both fueled by time-honored American fallacies and prejudices concerning privacy and profit, typically compete with each other in writers’ minds, thereby giving the impression that they are not only opposite of each other but also comprise the only available viewpoints. —Robert Grudin, Hearing the Audience, pp. 89-90, in The Soul of Creativity: Insights into the creative process, ed. by Tona Pearce Myers
Both of these paradigms—the alienated Artiste, the cynical commercial panderer—are sops to the ego. Neither of them transcend personal cares and worries, and neither of them ultimately engage socially. Neither of them reflect any connection to the community of humanity: both, in fact, are stances of alienation. One might go so far as to say that these two ideas about the artist, in their ultimate expressions, are sociopathic, in that to such artists the audience is not real people, not flesh and hair, not an Other one can, ultimately, find empathy with.
There is another path, though. We’re not inevitably locked into this or any other binary dualism, these apparent opposites between poles. Without denying that writing and reading are solitary occupations, most of the time, nonetheless there can be a dialogue between artist and audience that feeds both.
From the communitarian perspective, both the romantic model and the marketplace shrink to rather puny ego-driven affairs; ego barriers dissolve into a continuum in which writing and reading are coequal in a pattern of mutual response. And this realization can carry psychological benefits. Phobic syndromes like writers’ block and stage fright subside as performance is silently transmuted into contribution. The image of artist versus society gives way to a dialog reminiscent of earlier times. —Robert Grudin, ibid., pp. 90-91
This is an older paradigm, a communal, tribal paradigm. In some ways it is a return to pre-Modern values. Yet it still has benefit for us today, especially as the Artist-Hero models begin to show their essential hollowness. The last truly great artist-heroes who stood alone against the world were the Modernists, those heirs of the Romantics. Nowadays, engagement with the world, and acceptance of more facets of the world than previously thought “acceptable” is require for discourse. Increasing complexity implies increasing awareness of diversity. Heroic performance is silently transmuted into contribution. The distinction between “fine art” and “commercial art” is blurred, and that’s well: one becomes thereby able to appreciate quality in whatever arena one discovers it, regardless of position. Contribution can indeed be considered instead of (heroic) performance.
The return to a communitarian set of values in the arts also doesn’t mean we have to throw away everything that was gained during the Artist-Hero periods of increasingly alienation and egotism, because both technical and inspirational innovations were achieved during those periods—indeed, might not have been invented at all, otherwise. But that doesn’t mean we’re stuck there, in alienation. It doesn’t mean we must go forward, forever heroically alienated or market-driven. It does mean we can learn from all that, even as we build new communities of art out of the ashes of the old.