Critical Theory I Response
The artist is the man who makes life more interesting and
beautiful, more understandable or mysterious, or, probably
in the best sense more wonderful. His trade is to deal in
illimitable experience. It is therefore only of importance that
the artist discover whether he be an artist, and it is up to society
to discover what return it can make to its artists.
George Bellows (Protter 206)
What is the role of the artist? Is he a mad genius, blessed with a gift beyond his own control? Or is he a skilled worker, perfecting technique with years of study? As one begins to look at modern and contemporary art even more questions arise. What are the models of authorship and how to they apply to contemporary art? This concept kept reoccurring in the Critical Theory One reading and I believe it is an important one to discuss and apply to my own work.
Staniszewski discusses the first major shift in thinking of the role of the artist in her book Believing is Seeing. She sees the shift from monarchial rule to democratic rule as having an major effect on the role of the artist;
In modernity, visual culture does not embody the mysteries
of myth and ritual conjured by powers beyond humanity. It
is not produced upon command of church or crown…
Traditionally great modern Art is made by one creator,
who is inspired to produce it. This kind of inspiration has been
understood as the rare gift of genius!
This idea of ‘artist as genius of self expression’ is quite different from artist as craftsman or as a ’servant’ creating works of art for a king or pope. Staniszewski goes as far as to say that such artists were not creating “Art” in the sense that we regard it today because their work was basically controlled by those who commissioned it.
While I can definitely see this shift (to free will)of which the author speaks I disagree with her on one point. She seems to discount any art that was commissioned. Just because Michelangelo created the Sistine Chapel to glorify the Church and God does not mean that he did not utilize his own elements of self expression. I particularly look to his use of anatomy. The figures are larger than life because of the emphasis on the musculature and form. He used his own visual language to create power and expression in his figures. This creation of a visual language, specific to his own work, seems to me to be a very direct expression of the free will and genius we associate with modern artists.
The artist as genius subject is discussed by several authors through out the reading material for critical theory one. Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” states “On this basis, women’s lack of major achievement in art may be formulated as a syllogism; If women had the
golden nugget of artistic genius, it would reveal itself. but it has never revealed itself QED women do not have the golden nugget of artistic genius. “(198) Why would people buy into the idea of genius when there are so many factors that make more sense? We could compare the income of their parents, or as Nochlin suggests, the profession of their fathers (199).
One point that came up in our class discussion was Foucalt’s idea that it is not the artist himself but rather his discursive function; his importance as a commodity and a myth. There is a reason that Pollock and Warhol are the most remembered modern artists; people know who they are in an almost characterized way. Warhol, with his shock of white hair and Pollock as the brooding lone ranger are easily digestible figures. They became famous. Warhol particularly played with the idea of fame and authorship. He challenged the idea that the artist had to physically create his masterpiece. Factory production and the use of ‘low art’ were groundbreaking ideas. Warhol ushered in the age of artist as brand, as conductor, as idea maker.
The acts and personality of modern artists often became as much of a myth as the art work himself. “In The Greatest Homosexual“, Larry River’s escapades seem to overshadow his work.
In becoming an artist, Rivers performs a further act
of self-othering through his identification with the queer
artistic community of which he also became a part. This
is to view him in the late 1940’s and 1950’s as a kind of
queer-acting, or at least queer-identified, straight artist”
Rivers purposely made himself into the ‘other’ as a way to create a niche for his work. Although Rivers was a painter, he was about much more than putting paint on a canvas. His social scene, which includes the innuendoes in his paintings, is just as important as his work.
The major shift we discussed from modern to postmodern art is the shift from the artist to the viewer. The works of art become less about the artists feeling and experience and more about what the viewer experiences. The works of art are not complete until the viewer “fills them in”. Where does this leave the artist? I would say this makes the Post Modern artist more of a conductor. He is conducting the production of his pieces (or performances) and also attempting to manipulate his viewers to make his concepts available. We discussed this with Damien Hirst, whose work is more about the art system (auctions, money exchanges, valuation) than the actual pieces produces.
These ruminations on the role of the artist inevitably lead me to question my own role as an artist. I started off, as many artists do, with a more craftsman-like approach to art. I had to learn about mediums, grounds, and ways to apply paint. There was a lot of trial and error before I could even begin to make paintings that looked like what I envisioned. Despite the fact that some believe that “the still image is dead” I still find paint and pastel compelling mediums in which to work. Perhaps because our society is bombarded with moving images, on our phones, our computers, our televisions there will be a longing for the still images. Having an idea, an emotion, an entire story captivated in a still image is, to me, still a relevant form of communication. Painters at this point in time are able to look past the conventional modes of distributing their work because of the internet and computers. Look at the portrait of Obama by street artist Shepard Fairey. This is a image that has become iconic in a Warhol-like way, except it was never in a gallery (although the original eventually ended up in the National Portrait Gallery). It was disseminated through the internet and political campaigning and now thousands of people imitate it with the help of a website that allows you to plug in your own photograph.
The above example is just one way the artists are using creativity and technology in the Post Post modern world. The role of the artist is ever changing. Every artist needs to decide why, and for whom, she is creating her art. I see myself as an artist in the George Bellows quote at the beginning of this paper, as someone who deals in a boundless experience. This experience is what I bring to my paintings and hope to share with viewer.
Comments by Stuart Steck:
1) I find it interesting that you refer to the Artist by using a masculine pronoun (see your first three sentences). This is especially true given your discussion of authorship. It seems ingrained in our cultural consciousness that we think of the "artist/author" as a masculine subject. In this respect, I would argue that we need to employ different semantic structures in order to recast how we think of the "author" (this is certainly a point made by feminists).
2) While Michelangelo certainly developed his own visual language, I think Stanizewski would argue that people in the early 16th century did not possess a sense of "individual" consciousness. That is to say, they did not see themselves as autonomous beings, and thus did not approach the task of picture-making in terms of "self-expression." In other words, their work was not a deliberate expression of "selfhood." For Stanizewski, the idea of "ART" (as we know it) only begins to surface when artists see their work as a conscious act of self-expression (rather than as a means of visual communication or propaganda). After all, a clear sense of selfhood must precede the act of self-expression.
Of course, as I suggested in Critical Theory I, I think Stanizewski made a strategic mistake in choosing Michelangelo as an example. Historically speaking, Michelangelo seems to have been a transitional figure -- one who began to perceive his own autonomy as a creative agent. That said, I would still argue that the notions of "artistic genius" and "selfhood" are culturally determined/mediated (rather than natural or innate).
3) I agree with your suggestion that all artists function as "discursive subjects" (i.e., they fulfill certain roles and personae). And I think this is true for unknown artists ... as well as Pollock and Warhol. In fact, I would say that we all fulfill some kind of "discursive function" in our culture (i.e. we all perform prescribed roles and functions). After all, we exist within a cultural framework that dictates the parameters of our individual behavior. Even our attempts to transgress social norms are determined by the very society we seek to subvert.
4) I would agree that the postmodern artist functions as a "conductor" -- one who manipulates cultural images, objects, and meanings to achieve certain results. Indeed, I would contend that the most important medium for artists is culture itself! In this regard, I certainly agree with you: The artist must have a clear sense of purpose when she create her work!
Reference and Reading Material
Butt, Gavin “The Greatest Homosexual? Camp Pleasure and the Performative Body of Larry Rivers.” in Performing the Body/Performing the Text, by Jones, Amelia; Stephenson, Andrew: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1999.
Nochlin, Linda “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in Women, Art and Power, and Other Essays, Westview Press/Perseus, 1989.
Protter, Eric. Painter on Painting. New York: Dover Publications, 1997.
Staniszewski, Mary Anne. Believing is Seeing. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.