The Myth of the Artist


 Rodney Munday

(published in the 2005 summer edition of The Salisbury Review)



Recently, I visited the Abattoir, the new museum of contemporary art in Toulouse. A magnificent building architecturally, it was spoilt only by what it contained – the pretentious vacuity of the type of mainstream art which has plagued us for nearly forty years and still considers itself to be fresh.

At every corner there was an “installation” (in my ignorance, I once thought most art was installed). As with a similar installation in the nearby church of Les Jacobins, these consisted of mixed horrors in darkened rooms, accompanied by moans, graunching sounds, wails and cries, quite fitting for a former abattoir. They were a kind of intellectually sterilized ghost train, attracting serious looking people. Young children were not allowed near some of them. A four year old did, however, approach a piece of contemporary sculpture made of fairly hefty hunks of stainless steel. He found it quite attractive and thought it would be worth a feel. (His father is a sculptor and he has learned that sculpture is tactile). An attendant rushed up – ’Touche pas, ’Touche pas! - The thing was indestructible, but of course, it was Art. Yet outside, at the entrance to the gallery, children were crawling all over a Henry Moore.

So, what is Art? Ever since Duchamp exhibited his urinal in 1917 we have been told time and again that it is whatever the artist chooses to call it. Logically, that is the  equivalent of saying that a farmer who builds houses across his land still has a farm when it is a building site, because he chooses to call himself a farmer rather than a developer. Linguistically, it turns the word art into a ludicrous back-formation, derived from the word from which it is derived.

With time, the meaning of a word changes. The difference that we see today with such change, compared with the past, is that it is determined not by the organic growth of language, but the decision to call one thing by another name, because it seems desirable by certain individuals or groups to do so. So polytechnics become universities, homosexual people are gay, and artists are those who do not necessarily have any skill, but wish to be categorized as a certain “type”. Skill then becomes not merely unnecessary to the artist, but an impediment; his lack of it is an indication of his artistry. As Stephen Farthing, Master of the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford has said, “artists have become ideas people. They have more or less detached themselves from crafts and getting their hands dirty and have placed themselves in an executive, white-collar class.” He claims that “a craft based on a dream of creativity” was a cul de sac. “At the end of the twentieth century few artists think that the dream is worth the risk, and quite clearly the audience and collectors no longer require them to take it.” Socially, we might see this renunciation of skill as linked to the western world’s movement away from manufacture towards service industries, and thence (as even these are relocated in the east) towards a condition determined by and committed to the production of legal constrictions and their enforcement. Under such conditions, artists such as Emin and Hirst can be seen as the natural products of a society that produces nothing.

It would nevertheless be surprising to see much contemporary art called art if it were not for the fact that “mainstream” art is determined by institutional buyers, or by individual buyers acting like institutions, with their eyes projected on monetary value and therefore on trends rather than personal taste. Taste, of course, can be dismissed as something relative, but before we do so we should reflect that the painting of the Sistine was commissioned by a man rather than an institution and that St. Peter’s was determined by individuals rather than “the Church”. Arguably, the notion of chacun à son goût resulted in such work because it was unaffected by the vagaries of group decisions and media hype which are such determining factors today.

Taking a longer view of the situation, our idea of art has also been conditioned by the lingering effect of the Romantic movement. Romanticism liberated the artist from servitude to the patron (or so it seemed). When it didn’t really work, the artist starved in his garret – not of course because he was a bad artist, but because he was misunderstood. Instead of the Renaissance man, who at his best was “not of an age but for all time,” we have the man who is so far advanced beyond his own time that his own time does not understand him. Instead of the admiration of the past (both distant and recent) which we see during the Renaissance, with an attendant desire to improve even upon that, we have the abandonment and dismissal of the past, culminating in the denial of the value of a person or what he produces simply because he is dead, as in Aragon’s compliment to Rimbaud, that “he did not allow anyone to salute the dead in his presence.”

One problem about such rebellious attitudes to the past is ahistoricity. When the Primitives at the turn of the last century could ignore or dismiss the original primitives’ own values and considerations in their art in favour of the “relevance” of that art to the modern artist, it showed the extent to which our age was becoming one fettered by its own ignorance. When, in 1977 an “event” took place in which prayer books and registers from a synagogue were torn up and thrown on the floor, that ignorance manifested itself in the excuse that the artists had not understood the significance of the books. Ignorance and Sin are traditionally and justifiably represented as twins. But that still leaves the question as to why the relatively modern kind of artistic rebelliousness arises, for it is generally not for a cause, but for its own sake. Hans Richter, writing about the origins of Dada, said, “We were all propelled by the same powerful vital impulse. It drove us to the fragmentation or destruction of all artistic forms, and to rebellion for rebellion’s sake.” This is the type of rebelliousness that is associated with adolescence. One of the worst aspects of puberty is the self-centredness which is a natural product of biological self- awareness, and that is precisely what we see in the rebelliousness of contemporary art. Egocentricity and self-consciousness are two sides of the same coin, and there is little difference between shyness and self-assertion. Both are destructive unless they are outgrown. The first tends to the destruction of individual potential; the second to destruction of the past, and it is destroyed in the name of progress. Keep going forwards, because it is inconceivable that you can go back – even if you are heading in the wrong direction.

“Every artist,” Stephen Farthing says, “must be able to ask themselves [sic] when they complete a new piece of work a set of questions. Is it any good? Is it new? Does it achieve the objectives I set myself or go beyond them? Is it just a remake of something I or someone else has made before? What will my audience, my dealer think of it? Will it extend my audience?  Will it add to my reputation? Will it make me famous?” The need to ask these questions appears to go beyond the natural concerns of an artist-patron relationship to an unnecessary concern about what other people think, and as such is akin to adolescent self-consciousness. The desire for novelty, reputation and fame is simply pubescent self-assertiveness. The implication of much of what Farthing says is that for the artist today the artist is more important than his art. This is a natural corollary of the philosophy which was engendered in France in the 1960s, which devalued creativity, and upon which conceptual art and post-modernism were founded. “Deliverance from the confines of the studio frees the artist to a degree from the snares of craft and the bondage of creativity,” wrote Robert Smithson in 1968. “Ideas alone can be works of art,” wrote Sol LeWitt in 1969.

The creation of Adam has been represented countless times over the centuries, important to artists as a symbol of the creative act. Today its symbolism shows just how different the contemporary artist is from his predecessors – not different in degree but different in kind. The story represents a God who has an idea, a concept, but until the point where he actually makes a man in the physical world, that man is not a reality. Once man is actually created, he takes on an existence outside his creator. Only then can God communicate with him, because it is only then that he has a life (if disobedient) of his own. The story is a paradigm for every act of creation, whether of a child or a work of art. The act of creation liberates the created from the creator. A work of art which remains an idea is unborn. Conceptual art is therefore a contradiction in terms – unless you have made the decision to call one thing by another name.

This distinction between the created work and the author was described by E. M. Forster, when he said that the artist will look back on his work “and wonder afterwards how he did it.” Wonder at the creative process is lost on an artist preoccupied by himself. Because of that preoccupation he can also dismiss the art of the past because it is not his. But as Forster said about artistic appreciation, “we must come back to love. That alone raises us to the cooperation with the artist which is the sole reason for … aesthetic pilgrimage.” Or as Irving Stone put it in his novel about Michelangelo, “every act of creation is an act of love.” To dissociate the act of art making from the wonder and love of creativity is to produce a sterile art devoid of value. That is what has happened with works like Gilbert and George’s Spit on Shit or Serrano’s Piss Christ . Their objective is to shock and disgust, to desecrate and devalue. The choice of words for the titles is enough to show that.  Coleridge could have done the same thing when he described the beauty of candle light reflected in a chamber-pot of urine, but his description is their antithesis; a celebration of beauty in all things, of earth as the footstool of God, and consequently of man as imago Dei.  Perhaps the problem at the root of post-modernism is that it is dehumanising. With destructive self-assertiveness, it paradoxically applies its nihilism even to the artist himself, following the Structuralist philosophy on which it is based; that “French Theory” of deconstruction, semiotics and lengthy neologisms which replaced the author by “the text”. Initially, Foucault’s comment “What difference does it make who is speaking?” does not seem very different from Forster’s “The demand that literature should express personality is far too insistent these days.” But when Forster continues, “and I look back with longing to the earlier modes of criticism where a poem was not an expression but a discovery, and was sometimes supposed to have been shown to the poet by God,” we see the difference. For Foucault, the author “is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.” The insignificance of the author relative to his inspiration is replaced simply by the insignificance of the author. The concept of inspiration, like the concept of creation has been destroyed. So what are we to make of the self-publicising yet self-denying, uncreative, uninspired people who go around calling themselves artists? Instead of making something, they intellectualise endlessly, generally falling into the Swiftian trap of the Huynhnnms, that super race of purely rational beings, devoid of sympathy and therefore of morality, who impressed Gulliver rather more than Swift. Whether these post-modern artists are as intelligent as Swift’s horses, however, is open to debate.

Words, like people, have a history, and we change or destroy them at our peril, as in doing so we destroy our past and our heritage. I am a sculptor. I have no wish to be called an artist. I shape things, like the Anglo Saxon poet, the scop, and my humanity is enlarged if I can do so as if in the image of ælde Scyppend, the Shaper of men, the Creator.  Artist is a more recent word, the meaning of which has become increasingly corrupted. Originally, it meant one skilled in the arts and not just the fine arts to which it later became restricted. During the nineteenth century it attained the status of myth with the concept of the poet seer, and the mythology has continued to develop whilst the word itself has lost the connotation of skill, and along with the word art has become so vague as to be meaningless (“The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art as art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art,” said Ad Reinhardt). It is unsurprising that the contemporary “artist” no longer has to make anything. He has become his own raison d’être, and his own myth.

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