The Artist, the (possibly) Genius


Art, General Culture

Tom Griggs wrote a lengthy article, reacting to a comment I (and others) had to something he had written earlier (all the relevant information can be found in his recent piece). I thought I’d respond. (more)

First of all, nobody denies that all artists follow a tradition. That’s not an issue. The problem, however, arises when Griggs tries to deal with the topic of “originality.” He writes

“To say your work is original is to see yourself as removed from history and context, to see yourself in a vacuum and alone.”
I suppose you could do that, but obviously that doesn’t make any sense. You can in fact be an artist being fully embedded in the historical context of your medium and be original. There is no conflict here. As a matter of fact, those artists whose work becomes recognized by large numbers of people usually do just that: They stand out from the crowd (of other artists), not because they pretend they have nothing to do with the tradition, but rather because the strength of their artistic convictions and abilities adds so much originality to their work.

As an aside, I don’t get why Griggs insists on throwing in comments about conservative versus liberal minds in his piece. To frame your argument in such a way that anyone disagreeing is conservative (and thus, it seems, bad) strikes me not only as incredibly counterproductive, but also as misguided in all kinds of ways. There are no such things as liberal and conservative art - there is good art, and there is bad art. What is more, unlike politics (especially American politics), art offers shades of grey - instead of insisting on a black-vs.-white dichotomy.

I don’t see art as a collective endeavour. No, we’re not “doing this together” (Griggs’ words). Or maybe more accurately, we’re doing this as much together as we’re buying bread together or flossing our teeth together - or whatever else we’re doing together simply because we’re living at the same time, being subject of a culture and society (not the same thing!) with rules, conventions and ideas.

To say that we all somehow work on all of this together strikes me as little more than a feel-good exercise, which, unfortunately, suffers from the same problems as, for example, claiming that photography is the most democratic medium. It sounds good, but it doesn’t actually say anything.

A lot of artists might in fact be working on the same things, at this very same time. Some people even have the same ideas at the same time. But that doesn’t mean that somehow, art is a collective endeavour. All it says is that artists are embedded in a culture, and they all reflect their culture to some extent, some artists more than others. There is nothing particularly new about this. The history of art is filled with movements and periods, where dozens if not hundreds or thousands of artists worked on similar styles or off similar (or even the same) ideas.

But when we look back, it’s the Michelangelo’s we remember, the da Vinci’s, the Goya’s, the Picasso’s. And we remember them for exactly the very thing that Griggs would have us deny: Their ability, willingness, and aspiration to move beyond their peers: Their, yes, originality. It’s the same willingness and aspirations that all artists share (ability is another issue, of course), their attempt to be original, that would make taking away their names so profoundly wrong - regardless of how many there are! Art is not made by ants, it is made by people, by individuals (Btw, whether or not people are trying to make a quick dime by having contests or by selling stuff is utterly irrelevant).

So when Griggs reduces art to some sort of collective endeavour, denying the unique imagination and abilities individuals (but never the collective!) might have, that - and only that - will truly lead us to the world of artistic stasis.

And you cannot insist on the experience of art, while throwing away the most crucial aspect of it, namely that here you have one individual, speaking to you across time and space (god, that’s awful cliche writing, but I don’t know how to express it any other way - you get the idea), one individual you’re connecting with. Not some anonymous crowd, no, just one individual who somehow, seemingly magically, triggers something in you (and you secretly enjoy it even more thinking that it’s just for you and nobody else).