December 11, 2012

2 passages read recently on what makes an artist.

I've been rereading Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word" in Kindle the last couple days, and I ran across a great passage that shed light on something in that collection of essays I keep pushing, David Rakoff's "Half Empty."

First, Rakoff:
An artist is something you are, not something you do.

I first encountered this Seussian syllogism in a used-book store, where I spent an extra thirty minutes fake-browsing just so I might continue to eavesdrop on the cashier, who was expounding to his friend about Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo’s classic antiwar novel. The cashier had a theory about the book’s protagonist, Johnny, wounded and blinded and amputated to such an extent that, while sentient, he was little more than an unresponsive trunk of meat with a rich inner life.
“So I asked myself: If this guy was Picasso, would he have been any less of an artist or less of a genius just because he couldn’t paint? And my thinking is no, he wouldn’t.” I lacked the bravery to challenge him more openly than a muttered “Oh, brother” from the stacks, choosing instead to ridicule and sell him out years later, here in print. But it’s the same reasoning: indolence as proof positive of prodigious gifts. You can arguably invent Cubism and be the very embodiment of Modernism if you get a kick out of that sort of thing. But you hardly need to, Armless Picasso. Artists are artists whether they produce or not. None of it requires much more than hanging out. 
And hanging out can be marvelous. But hanging out does not make one an artist. A secondhand wardrobe does not make one an artist. Neither do a hair-trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, nor even HIV—I hate to say it—none of these make one an artist. They can help, but just as being gay does not make one witty (you can suck a mile of cock, as my friend Sarah Thyre puts it, it still won’t make you Oscar Wilde, believe me), the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.
Here's Wolfe:
The Conceptualists liked to propound the following question: Suppose the greatest artist in the history of the world, impoverished and unknown at the time, had been sitting at a table in the old Automat at Union Square, cadging some free water and hoping to cop a leftover crust of toasted corn muffin or a few abandoned translucent chartreuse waxed beans or some other item of that amazing range of Yellow Food the Automat went in for— and suddenly he got the inspiration for the greatest work of art in the history of the world. Possessing not even so much as a pencil or a burnt match, he dipped his forefinger into the glass of water and began recording this greatest of all inspirations, this high point in the history of man as a sentient being, on a paper napkin, with New York tap water as his paint. In a matter of seconds, of course, the water had diffused through the paper and the grand design vanished, whereupon the greatest artist in the history of the world slumped to the table and died of a broken heart, and the manager came over, and he thought that here was nothing more than a dead wino with a wet napkin. Now, the question is: Would that have been the greatest work of art in the history of the world or not? The Conceptualists would answer: Of course, it was. It’s not permanence and materials, all that Winsor & Newton paint and other crap, that are at the heart of art, but two things only: Genius and the process of creation! Later they decided that Genius might as well take a walk, too.

38 comments:

edutcher said...

I like Wolfe's take.

There were very likely people in Africa or South America who probably were as good as Homer (if not Shakespeare), but we'll never know because of the impermanence of the media.

Ann Althouse said...

Wolfe's take? Or the Conceptualists'?

Nonapod said...

Conceptualism is an excuse for being a solipsistic fool. You have to create art and have it be acknowledged to be an artist. Art is a form of communication, and communication requires more than one party.

chickelit said...

[A] "deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out" sounds positively Titian (or Titusian as it were).

Paddy O said...

Mark Twain had a similar take in Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, though not really fitting into either Rakoff or Wolfe. His was more related to access--getting noticed by the right people at the right time.

His take was that people can be amazing artists and poets and geniuses, but if they're not in a place to be noticed they often get mocked or left out or dismissed because the people around them don't know how to gauge brilliance.

In heaven, however, everyone gets treated according to their due.

Surfed said...

I am an historical artist lately immersed in the Federal sailing navy 1796 - 1865 (USS Constitution, President, Wasp, Essex, et al) . Also just started a commission on the USS Washington and the IJN Kirishima, but I digress. Someone once asked me why I didn't get a website and sell prints and emblazon t shirts and coffee mugs, etc. I explained that I'm an artist not a merchant. I don't sell things. i would rather give away one of my paintings/illustrations for free to one who darly wanted it than to sell it to someone for money who didn't really care about it. Again, artists create. We're not much interested in selling. But if I had a manager who did all the dirty work for a cut...

Lovernios said...

I think that the creation is more important than the creator. Many of the world's great art that has survived for millenia are anonymous. Some think that Homer never existed, and was a construct of later writers. And that the Iliad had existed far longer in oral form, passed mouth to ear for eons. Would the Odessey be less of a masterpiece if Homer's last name were Simpson?

I'm not an artist; I just play one on TV.

Rusty said...

Artists make art. They don't talk about it. They do it. To be an artist takes talent and compulsion. It makes no difference to them if it's ever seen, or heard, or read. It is the thing thy have to do to complete themselves. To find joy.

traditionalguy said...

Art is the act of creation in a material medium that can be displayed, but the Patron will only support the artist that brings the Patron pleasure or pride of ownership.

Ergo:Design for the market place, big or small market, is the essence of art. But art for the Asbergers guy's personal pleasure has not achieved art status.

Let it be written !

BTW, I love the Rackoff book you cited. It is a truly cathartic experience when he reads it on Audible.

Scott said...

"Art is a form of communication, and communication requires more than one party."

Wrong and wrong.

If art was communication, then Soviet Realism would be the greatest artistic movement in history.

Communication with oneself is a precursor to communicating with someone else.

Surfed said...

@Rusty - Exactly.

edutcher said...

Ann Althouse said...

Wolfe's take? Or the Conceptualists'?

Wolfe seems to be endorsing the Conceptualists, no?

PS Both links point to Rakoff's book.

Molly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Molly said...

As I understand this line of though (conceptualism, say), it's all about intentions.

If I get out my lawn mower and cut my lawn, I'm just cutting the grass. But if I get out my lawn mower and cut my lawn and sell tickets, I'm creating a work of performance art (or modern dance, if you prefer), because I am intending it as a work of art.

If I have a child growing in my womb and I intend to give birth, and then lose the child it is a tragic death of a child. If I have a child growing in my womb and I do not intend to give birth, it is a mass of tissue to be removed as one would a benign tumor.

And obviously racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

In order for others to correctly judge my intentions, therefore, it is important for me to signal those intentions. I cut the grass wearing black tights. I put bumper stickers on my car. I laugh at George W. Bush comments.

Johnny_A said...

The best explanation of creativity and art I've run across was created by Dorothy Sayers in "The Mind of the Maker"

She says that there are 3 components to all artistic and creative efforts 1) The original (perfect) idea of the artist 2) The incorporation of that ideal into the artist's medium and 3) The correspondence through the artist's medium with the original idea in the mind of the audience. She then uses this as an analogy by which Christians can understand the Trinity.

It sounds like the Conceptualists felt that art was only part's 1 and 2 - with no reference to part 3.

Here's a link to the book.
http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/dlsayers/mindofmaker/mind.c.htm

Ann Althouse said...

"Wolfe seems to be endorsing the Conceptualists, no?"

Read the book. Really, it's great. The answer is: no.

Bob_R said...

The Painted Word is an attack on (among other things) the Conceptualists. And I am with Wolfe and Rakoff - and Rusty's first sentence. To be an artist you have to create art. Armless Picasso may be a beautiful person (though the one with arms was a real bastard) but armless Picasso is not an artist.

edutcher said...

Hmm, then I guess I'm a Conceptualist.

Maybe I should read the book.

Nonapod said...

Wrong and wrong.

If art was communication, then Soviet Realism would be the greatest artistic movement in history.


I fail to see how art being a form of communication would make Soviet Realism the "greatest artistic movement in history."

But I will concede that art isn't only a form of communication. It is creation by one party, observation of that which was created by another, and interpretation of those observations. I submit that the creation of something by itself is not art, it only becomes art when it is observed.

Indigo Red said...

The semester assignment in my furniture making art class was to construct a chair. Most of the artists in class made chairs of a somewhat standard expected design.

The night before my presentation, I had no chair to present. After a trip to a hardware store, I began construction of a 2"X3" chair made entirely of wooden match heads and flammable glue. In the morning, I presented my chair to the class. One chair leg was ignited and in one "whoosh!" the chair was a furious flame and in a few moments a pile of ash.

Of the 25 chairs presented, mine was the only one to receive a standing ovation and 'A'.

Was is it art? I've no idea, but it fit all the perimeters agreed upon by the Art Dept.

Ann Althouse said...

"PS Both links point to Rakoff's book"

Thanks. Fixed.

AReasonableMan said...

Ann Althouse said...

"Wolfe seems to be endorsing the Conceptualists, no?"

Read the book. Really, it's great. The answer is: no.


It is a good book, but agreeing with someone railing against modern art makes me feel old and out of touch. On yet another issue I have turned into my father.

rcocean said...

"Modern" art has been around for over a 100 years. TR was commenting on it in 1913.

So if you think young hip people like Modern art and only "old fogey's" don't you must be trapped in a 1950/1960 time-warp.

Ignacio said...

Robert Rauschenberg was asked by Iris Clert to do a portrait of her. He sent her a telegram: "This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say it is."

AReasonableMan said...

rcocean said...

"Modern" art has been around for over a 100 years. TR was commenting on it in 1913.

So if you think young hip people like Modern art and only "old fogey's" don't you must be trapped in a 1950/1960 time-warp.


Pretty sure TR falls solidly into the old fogey's category.

Paddy O said...

I like to rail against modern art, but only because it's art for old fogeys.

rcocean said...

"Pretty sure TR falls solidly into the old fogey's category."

Last time I looked TR was dead, but maybe you know better.

Too bad we can't use Crayon here, maybe it'd help some people's reading comprehension.

AReasonableMan said...

rcocean said...
Too bad we can't use Crayon here, maybe it'd help some people's reading comprehension.


Jeez, what's with the attitude? It's just art we are talking about here, not something important like Benghazi.

St. George said...

I'm the artist St. George.

My work is divine.

Buy some.

Put a tiger under your Christmas tree.

Leif said...

The great artists of the Renaissance were meticulously-trained craftsmen who rose above mere craft. They were artisans who created art. Creation is a concrete act, not the day-dream of impotence.

Contrast this with the celebrated modern artist, who is most often little more than a self-entitled grifter of modest technical proficiency.

Art died years ago, as did our culture. So, relax, pop a cow in some Jell-o, and get rich!

The Wolfeman is right.

David said...

The classic skewering of the mindset Rakoff's attacking is from Price and Prejudice, in which Lady Catherine states that her daughter Anne would be a much better piano player than Elizabeth Bennet, if only her health had allowed her to learn how to play.

Rusty said...

Surfed said...
@Rusty - Exactly.

Thank you, but it isn't mine. It's my daughters. She's been drawing and painting since she could hold a pencil. She's 20.

AustinRoth said...

I submit that the creation of something by itself is not art, it only becomes art when it is observed.

Schrodinger's art?

Sigivald said...

Contra Rakoff, I'd say "Mr. Black Box" there could be an Artist in a meaningful sense (though obviously not the sense of a producer-of-artworks).

It's just very unlikely that he would be.

And absolutely agreed that calling yourself one doesn't suffice; you have to do work, and a lot of it.

But it can be purely mental - the problem is that nobody else can tell if you're a poseur unless you can and do create physical objects or other artifacts (be they musical compositions, arrangements of words, whatever).

An artist is something you "are", but like the Lutheran relation between being elect and doing good works, if you're not making art in a visible way people are quite rightfully going to assume you're a faker.

dvlfish13 said...

You can look at this question from the other direction as well - a work of art that holds its own creator in judgment. Think of every one hit wonder and every brilliant first novel that was not followed up by ... anything of value. It seems as though that artist is unequal to the creation. This is common enough that we have a word for it - inspiration, which I take to mean that the artist didn't really do the creating, something worked through him.

Richard Dolan said...

Wolfe is sharp and funny. Like Ann at her best. His deconstruction of Conceptualism! exposes it as a plastic private language, an impossible fantasy that, oddly, never ceases to seduce. As with any private language, it rules out at the get-go communication while being premised on the existence of a common conceptual background that can only arise through art-as-communication. Quite a mess, really, for something with such high-minded pretensions. Wolfe skewers it without doing it all that much injustice.

His Painted Word is a wonderful romp. Can't claim to be familiar with the other fellow.

Howard said...

Surfed Said: I am an historical artist lately immersed in the Federal sailing navy 1796 - 1865 (USS Constitution, President, Wasp, Essex, et al) . Also just started a commission on the USS Washington and the IJN Kirishima, but I digress. Someone once asked me why I didn't get a website and sell prints and emblazon t shirts and coffee mugs, etc. I explained that I'm an artist not a merchant. I don't sell things. i would rather give away one of my paintings/illustrations for free to one who darly wanted it than to sell it to someone for money who didn't really care about it. Again, artists create. We're not much interested in selling. But if I had a manager who did all the dirty work for a cut...

Copying marine architecture for armchair warship fanboys is drafting, not art. It's a very honorable and painstakingly difficult craft and I'm sure it is very satisfying. However, this type of work cannot be placed in the same category as the great works of J.M.W. Turner depicting ships.

To eschew commerce is the most common prototypical atelier loser philosophical talisman. It's based on the false idealization of Vincent van Gogh who never sold a painting and went on to be (arguably) the greatest painter of all time so far. This narcissistic attitude equates themselves with a one in 10-billion genius who worked himself to death for his art. Because art is the most competitive business (yes, my dear child, it is a business) many so-called artists cover their arse with the van Goghian halo to justify their failure to compete and be recognized. That's why the puritanical art hobbyists foul themselves with jealousy and condescension towards the likes of Koons, Hirst, Kinkade and Ross.

tiger said...

Thanks, Professor. Both excerpts make excellent points.

Whoever publicized DuChamps'(sp) idea that '"Art" is what I say it is' did the World a great disservice.