Friday, February 26, 2010

Two different myths of the artist

...And a snippet from today's writing. (Thanks to William Clark for helping to grease the wheels) :
Wherever we have a prevailing myth of "the artist," rather than a tradition of artisans and skilled tradesman that attempt to do nothing beyond furthering and perfecting traditional methods, the real breakthroughs occur in the hands of rare individuals who change the playing field in varying degrees. Through figures such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, or Ornette Coleman, blues and jazz were transformed into bebop and free jazz. They all had varying experience in the traditions that came before, but all of their contributions are measured in the uniqueness of their own voice, and how the addition of that voice forever changed the tune afterwards. This is something valued in Western culture, even if it is also feared by the conservative elements of the culture. 
    We value this because the myth of "the artist" is an offshoot of the myth of the individual. You simply don't find the same thing, at least as the rule, in traditional tribal cultures of South America, or in Asian cultures before Western values began to take hold. These are two very different, equally valid perceptions of the nature of art. One emphasizes upholding and refining a particular tradition. The other emphasizes a revolution of forms by the individual, and as such is oftentimes as much about the artist as the art. We know of Dali's persona almost as much as his work; imagine the same thing from the Ndebele of South Africa. We know the style, but rarely the creator. The art is more of a cultural and community practice. The work remains, the creator remain nameless outside of the community. 
The work of Piet Mondrian, which carries a somewhat similar aesthetic as the Ndebele, the same boldness and simplicity, is distinguished in part because of the artist, even in the case of a less flamboyant artist such as he. There is an element to the individualistic, progress-centric concept of art that is always autobiographical, whether it is implicit or explicit. Even in art focused on form or concept, the very value of the art comes through the creator, rather than the piece itself. 
    Imagine that living at the same time as Picasso, there was another artist with a similar style and equal skill. This fictional shadow never attained any amount of noteoriety as an artist, however, eeking out an existence as an accountant. In the present day, which artists work is more valuable? The fact that this question is rhetorical only proves the power of this myth in the Western world. These works only become valuable if someone manages to bolster the myth of this shadow artist; if he attains sainthood within the art world, then perhaps the work will command high prices by virtue of the name. 
    Breakthroughs at the hands of these individuals are literally just that, changing the playing field altogether, rather than being a part of an unbroken, linear progression from antiquity to modernity. This may seem confusing, since the myth of progress itself is linear. It is only in retrospect that we identify, or even invent, the ideological connections between one movement and sub-culture and the next, in essence drawing a line in a field of dots. 
Many of these breakthroughs come as a result of critically analyzing, even challenging, the mythic axioms held by the surrounding culture, as we see in the history of Christianity with Eckhart, with Bruno, and so on. Whether artist, inventor, or philosopher becomes less relevant within this context. Each took new gambit, however subtle or gross, based on the risks taken by those that came before. The challenge is not just in regard to an invented "art world," but towards the culture as a whole. If successful, these gambits can reform the culture itself. Art is a medium of cultural revolution. It is even a constant revolution, in the Marxist sense -- a continual process of self-criticism -- though certainly not necessarily towards Marxist ends. The Western myth of art is in fact the myth of the revolutionary individual. This mythic current could even be called Luciferian, though only to the extent that Lucifer is conceived of as a symbol divorced of Christian morality. He is the light-bearer, not all that unlike Prometheus; a figure that disobeys the laws of the land. But this transgression is not without purpose. It is done in the name of progress. Thus the Western myth of art, in the form of the revolutionary artist, is inexorably tied into the myth of progress.  

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