the myth of the artist
aka everyone has an inner truth!!!
This is about the popular idea of the artist, based not on what real artists might do for a living but instead the artist as a contemporary mythological figure. Last week I wrote about what I consider to be some images of Heaven that, although they would not hold up to any theological scrutiny, are nevertheless too ingrained in popular culture to ignore. This week I wrote something similar about artists.
In one historical sense, a religious life is simply a life defined by ritual and cult, and it is contained by processes of initiation. Within this model, religion is social and participatory. It has insiders and outsiders, and the insiders all do things together in order to approach truth, insight, and salvation. Although personal experience is certainly important to religion, it is defined by meaning-laden communal experiences, especially various initiatory procedures which continually reaffirm the community while also inviting in new members. In this context of initiatory religion, the role of the visual artist is to create cult objects that the initiated can include in their worship and therefore use to shape their religious experiences. These cult objects both contribute to and enhance the language of ritual, and to translate it into an immersive visual and tactile experience which can have a great effect on the initiated.
For example, I recently visited Sainte-Chappelle with a friend, and we were stunned by both the level of craftsmanship and the amount of significance that characterized every artistic flourish in the chapel. Walking through the space, someone who knew how to read this kind of Christian imagery would see first images associated with the (secular) hunt at his feet. As he raised his gaze, he would start to see increasingly more holy images – the Saints, then elaborate miniature cities meant to recall the city of God, then, in the stained glass, an overwhelming kaleidoscope of color that shone when the sun hit upon it. Finally, the rose window contained images of the apocalypse. This is just a broad sketch – there were many, many details that made the experience overwhelming on the symbolic level. It was as if the building was talking to us. Although we were capable of reading quite a bit of detail into the visual language of the space, we knew that there was a threshold we could not cross, and we imagined how overwhelming the chapel would have been to a medieval believer. The artists who made the components of Saint-Chappelle were contributors to this larger religious experience that those believers would have had, and although they could shape it, they did not create or define the concepts behind their art – they simply reinforced and enriched a broader cultural narrative that was already available to the people who worshiped within the chapel. In short, they were vectors for the sacred, not originators of it.
I bring this up not because I think that the role of the artist is inherently religious, but because it’s not at all controversial to point out that ‘art’ has taken on a kind of mystic significance during the past two centuries, and I want to contrast the so-called ‘religious’ role that the artist plays now with a religious role that an artist might have played in the past. It’s not enough, nor is it totally accurate, to say that the artist has himself become sacralized, has moved away from the role of craftsman toward the role of priest. This is because the contemporary artist exists in a much more atomized landscape than his medieval counterpart. There are many ways to say that the popular landscape is no longer defined by initiatory institutions – one could say that it lacks friction or definition; in any case, it is curiously lacking in the kinds of meaningful thresholds that are so central to initiatory religions. In this context, the artist’s role cannot be to build the visual aspects of a community or to depict its values, because no such equivalent community really exists – instead, the role of the artist is to ‘be themselves’. They are not in service of a larger divine concept which is available to all of the initiates; they are instead in service to an inner insight, talent or ‘vision’.
Whereas previously the artist was the ultimate insider, translating culturally relevant themes in the context of, typically, a larger workshop that created objects for wealthy patrons, they are now the ultimate outsider (although the fact that they ultimately end up making things for wealthy patrons, of course, remains the same). There is the notion that they must be, in some way, fundamentally opposed to polite society, that their career of choice somehow does not even exist in the same realm as that of someone who works in an office. Their privileged insight and talent spurs them to follow some instinct which leads them away from convention. Of course, they end up entrenched in culture nevertheless, if they are successful, and do their own part to articulate and shape its values, but in the popular imagination they retain this image of difference. ‘Society’, the myth goes, is lacking in meaning and truth, but the artist, who fundamentally opposes society, has access to these things and can even give a glimpse of them to other people.
I think that, in presenting this image of friction, the contemporary artist is almost a physical representative of the initiatory process – they have internalized the threshold. This is because they are simultaneously depicted as someone who is constantly searching for transcendence and truth, and someone who alone has potential access to it. They are seeking access to a hidden truth which is deeply personal to them and therefore incomprehensible to others unless translated by the artist. They can depict what they see, but they cannot initiate anyone else into the cult of their truth, because no one else can do what they do, and initiation requires performance, not just consumption. Thus, instead of bringing people into their world, they encourage, on the passive side, consumption and, on the active side, imitation. However, what is desirable about their experience – their talent, their inspiration – is neither imitable nor capable of being owned by another, because it is inherent to their person. The artist is defined by their ‘uniqueness’, by their unusual point of view, or at least this is what makes them valuable. They are the reject of society, brought back into the fold to become the pinnacle of culture. Or, at least, this is the romanticized, popular image of the artist.
There are a few consequences of this image. First, to get it out of the way, I will just say that this is bad for artists. The image of whatever art you might wish to pursue as a ‘vocation’ occludes the very real fact that there are lots of artists out there who are not so interested in ‘expressing themselves’ and would actually just like to make a living. If everyone in the arts is presented more as a personality or symbol than a craftsman, then it is much easier for those who don’t know the details of their work to devalue it, either out of ignorance or malice. But this is not what I wish to focus on.
A more ambiguous consequence is that this image of the person who is the sole initiate of his own unique truth is so seductive that it has become the ideal paradigm of what a person should be. Everyone wants to be an artist now, even if they don’t want to actually make anything. The ‘lifestyle’ accorded to the artist, which has little to do with crafting items and everything to do with positioning oneself as a unique person with something to say, shapes the ways that people understand the trajectories of their lives, how they embark on their ‘careers’, how they allocate value to their enterprises and those of others in their lives. In short, I think the hazy mythology around the artist has contributed to a culture in which people are encouraged to find meaning inside themselves, where people assume that there is some untouched core to their personality which is somehow more ‘true’ than any of the soiled interactions that make up their daily lives. I would like to return here to the notion of utopian thinking. To dream of being an artist, in many cases, is to dream, again, of utopia, but this time the dream-place is not heaven, nor is it another country, or another time – it is simply an ideal of oneself in a vacuum, unsullied by the pretensions necessitated by interactions with others, pursuing some ‘inner truth’ that seems brighter and more pure than anything the mundane world could offer.