Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ideas of the Artist: the Standard Models

There are many ideas about what artists are, who they are, what they do, how they do what they do. Most such ideas are limited by ignorance, because most such ideas come from non-artists. Even artists buy into them, because they're part of the cultural assumptions about the nature of reality that we all grow up with. One's birth-tribe can have a powerful influence on how one constructs one's perceptions of reality.

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.

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Anonymous Shannon said...

I am somewhat guilty of fitting into the stereotype of an artist: shy, quiet, philosophical.

Stereotypes of artists create a one-dimensional image of individual artists! For example, people who see me as an artist might have a hard time seeng me as a student, dancer, or just a human being. Likewise, people from one of the other spectrums have a hard time seeing me as an artist. Why do people have to have single labels such as "The artist" or "the nerd" or whatever? These names only represent a part of the person - sometimes a small part, sometimes an enormous part. I'm glad someone finally spoke up about this!

8:07 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's really the (stereotype of) the artist as introvert. A lot of artists are introverts, but a lot are extraverts, too. Sometimes one wonders if writing, by nature a solitary occupation, doesn't attract more than it's fair share of introverts.

You're absolutely right about people only perceiving aspects of the whole. I think labeling is an easy form compartmentalizing and categorizing, which in this often overwhelming world seems to make things simpler. You stick things, and people, into pigeonholes and then forget about them. But humans have always been more complex than that. I think everyone carries a whole array of archetypes, never just one. Artist, traveler, geek, father/mother, etc. all at the same time.

1:51 PM  
Blogger gregra&gar said...

Martyred hero or crass capitalist merely define two ends of a dynamic spectrum along which all human endeavor falls — but for art to be the result of such efforts relies on both the unity of the actor and his medium and its unvarnished visceral communication to the bystanding audience. If the audience is targeted the art is an ad for an argument. If the audience is shunned the art is an ad for an insult. If the amusement of the audience is not a byproduct of the process, it isn't art. I posted about just this subject today.

7:45 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

This also goes with the idea of the crazy/suicidal/psycho-emotional problems that many think = creativity. They seem to forget that for every Van Gogh or Plath there are 999,999 depressed types with no artistic quality whatsoever and are just depressed.

Some extroverted artists:

Can you think of any more?

8:23 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, as I said, there are a lot of bad ideas out there about art and artists. A lot of them are generated by non-artists. (Although in Balinese, there are no non-artists; everybody is always an artist, artisan, etc.) The real problem is when artists buy into the more toxic ideas, too.

Other extraverts?

Start with Hemingway, add a little Pound, and stir.

12:32 AM  
Blogger gregra&gar said...

Your mentioning Bali's culture being based on the idea that they are all artists brought to mind the idea that perhaps all people are artists at birth and the number of those who retain that creativity into adulthood indicates the degree of freedom allowed or conformity demanded by the different cultures into which they were born. Bali is my number one priority of places to visit on the entire planet — now if I could just stomach dealing with Homeland Security intrusiveness at the airport I might go. I have linked to your blog, thanks for subjects worth considering.

8:48 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Not all people are artists at birth. Not all people are artists. Anyone who tells you "we're all artists and can bring out our potential" is either mistaken or lying. It's as absurd as if one were to say that everyone can be a ballet dancer. Just as I, for example, cannot do long division in less than an hour, there are some people who will not be artists no matter how heard they try.

1:44 AM  
Blogger gregra&gar said...

The idea that the people of Bali grow up to be artists isn't due to national or racial cornering the artist gene market, it is the culture in which they were not only allowed to develop their artistic sensibilities, they are encouraged by being surrounded by examples of what truly is the spirit of artistry from neighbors in not only what the western world considers to be the "arts" (music, painting, sculpture, dance, drama, etc) but by cooks and kite makers who make their creations an expression of their artistry as does the entire population consider their very lives artistic expressions in praise of the gift of life. Calling the possibility of the existence of Bali an absurdity fostered by mistakes and lies can only be a defensive expression of a limitation in what you consider an acceptable expression of art. I didn't say, "everyone can be a ballet dancer" or a mathematician for that matter, but both endeavors can be artistic pursuits given a celebratory gratitude for being alive.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

In the Balinese language, the word "artist" did not enter common usage until the 1930s, and it was a loan-word, introduced by European foreigners such as artist and anthropologist Walter Spies. The Indonesian words for art, "seni" or "kreasi" or the others, are mostly loan-words, as well.

This does not mean that there were no artists in Bali, prior to the 1930s. What it means is that Balinese culture did not raise people to believe that "artist' is a specialized or professional category. Everybody did art, and still does. Almost every Balinse belongs to a gamelan or ketjak group, or is a dancer, or carves statues, or works in wood. The cultural assumption is that everyone is born creative, and will find the creative task to which they feel most suited, if left alone and encouraged to be creative.

The point is, from the Balinese viewpoint, there was no distinction between "amateur" or "professional" artist. These categories exist now in Indonesian culture, but they are concepts that arrived via European influence.

The Westen (Euro-American) ideas about "artists" are just as culturally bound as are those from Bali, or Africa. The point is that not all cultures think about them in the same way. Prior to the European influence, in Bali they might have said "We have no artists" while they were taking a break from dance or music performances, or from woodcarving. The idea that "artisan" and "artist" are separate categories, as they can be in the West, might not have occurred to them naturally.

But let's not get hung up on just the Balinese example. In fact, I think it's generally true that creativity IS a human birthright. Where people get hung up on the definitions and expectations of "artists" is in believing that "artist" is a professional category, separate from everyday life. (This can be traced to the uniquely Western idea of the Artist-Hero, and genius-artist, a different sort of person than the usual grunt.) In fact, everyone IS creative all the time, it's just that we don't call everything that people do that IS creative "art." We might call it cooking, or engineering, but that doesn't mean it's not creative.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

"In fact, everyone IS creative all the time,"

How can everyone be creative all the time anymore than calling everyone athletic? I agree that not everything that is creative results in art (such as math and science) but baking brownies where you follow an a-b-c procedure is not creative, anymore than walking to the mailbox can be called athletic. 'Creative' requires a certain amount of vision (which doesn't necessarily have to be artistic) just as to be athletic requires a certain amount of physical ability/skill, lest hearts pumping and breathing alone could be called 'athletic' too. Hell, so could typing this post.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, one can approach a thing with pre-judgments already in place, or with an open mind to the possibility.

You can think of it as approaching things with an attitude of creativity. I mean that literally, not in some newage platitude way. Years of meditating and martial arts taught me that, literally, anything can be practiced as a meditation, from making dinner to cleaning the toilets. It's all in the attitude you approach it with. If you approach an activity with mindfulness, it becomes meditation. In Aikido, they even talk about the martial arts as "moving meditation."

So, in the same way, you can approach every daily activity, no matter now mundane, as a creative process. Or as part of a creative process. And you're right, most such things won't produce Art, or art objects; but the practice doe improve the art objects that one does produce, because the habit of approaching things from a creative viewpoint is practiced even in "non-creative" activities.

As much as I loathe and despise Martha Stewart, and think she's the Antichrist incarnate, she says over and over again, in her various media, that anything can be done creatively, with a creative touch. In that at least she is right.

3:21 AM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

As much as I loathe and despise Martha Stewart, and think she's the Antichrist incarnate,

Are you sure you don't mean the other Antichrist with a magazine and her photo on every cover? I go back and forth between who is worse.

5:19 PM  

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