Wednesday, December 17

The Deified Artist

I am aware that this blog, though specifically art themed, rarely delves too deeply into art theory or true criticism. I suppose that is because I tend to think of this as a way to update friends and family about my life, though recently I have been rather lazy about that too. I never really think of anyone I don't know reading what I post let alone responding, but this week I began a heated discussion about one of my posts from June on a lecture I had gone to at Idyllwild Arts. I'm not going to post all the comments here because the exchange was lengthy, but if you would like to read it I encourage you to. What the discussion boils down to is that, in my recounting of the lecture, I painted a picture of a normal guy who happens to be an artist. The reaction of my respondent was that I am as Lois Lane, unable to see the Superman that Fred Tomaselli is. Well, forgive me, but my stance is that an artist IS entirely human; sometimes so much so that they can hardly function in society. Many artists have been mentally unbalanced, drug addicts, womanizers, physically handicapped, or socially handicapped. Others still have been perfectly normal, high functioning, philanthropic, stay at home moms, happy healthy functioning people. There is no singular formula to create an artist and there is no requirement that an artist has to be deranged to create something worthy, but as far as I know every last one of them was at least biologically human.

More specifically, it is a myth that an artist has to be a tortured genius to create something of significance. One of my favorite academic essays that debunks this myth is by historian Nanette Saloman, 'The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission.' In the essay she writes about one of the original art historians Giorgio Vasari, "the most important premise of Vasari's book is his assertion that great art is the expression of individual genius and can be explained only through biography. The stress on individuals' biographies...encapsulates those individuals and presents them as discrete from their social and political environments. The inherent and manipulative limitations of such a biographical system are clear. The most significant limitation is that, as a system, it at once ties the work of art to a notion of inaccessible genius and thereby effectively removes it from consideration as a real component in a process of social exchange that involves both production and consumption." Though Vasari wrote his book 'Lives of the Artists' during the Renaissance, this idea of the inaccessible artist continues to this day. Artists have been beheld as if floating above on a creative cloud beginning with the primary man Vasari held high, Michelangelo, and continuing through the artistic canon. Vasari's goal with his text was to elevate Florence as the epitome of cultural superiority, and his book certainly succeeded in that endeavor. It also began a legacy of dismissing the artist as a genius beyond comprehension of society. While I do agree with Vasari that knowing the biography of an artist is important to understanding their work, I agree because that places an individual in historical context. A work of art must be viewed in complete context to be fully understood, even if that means acknowledging that these men and women are not demigods. In fact, it is especially important to remember that they are not demigods. I see nothing wrong with admiring the work of an artist, or in being intrigued by their creative inspiration and the history surrounding their work. However, there is certainly something wrong with turning that person into something to worship.


KC said...

Have you ever read Wittkower's Born under Saturn? You might find it interesting, it investigates/questions the myth of the artist as tortured genius. And anything by Wittkower is a great read IMHO.

BTW, thanks for the link!

Kelly Visel said...

No, I haven't read that but it sounds interesting. I'm going to have to check it out. Thanks!