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The artist as hero- an anatomy of a bad idea

January 4, 2016

Beethoven by yours truly


Before we get into the anatomy of the bad idea, it’s worth saying that I have a huge respect for the production- if not the ideals- of the romantic period. Think of Turner and Delacroix and even Courbet- those people who helped break the ground for impressionism and the whole apparatus of the modern movement. In fact you could argue that of all the artistic movements- those that we think of as ‘movements’ of course- the romantic period achieved the most, liberating art from the iron bourgeois values that led merely to so much decadence and cant.

So much for the preamble. When we think of the idea of the artist as hero, Beethoven is the figure that comes most readily to mind for me. I’ve recently listened to all of Beethoven’s symphonies at nearly one sitting and at first the idea of Beethoven as the romantic hero seems unassailable. They are like watching a storm sweep over a great turneresque landscape. But if you look too deeply into the idea, it soon falls apart.

That statement had better have some substantiation behind it. The thing is, if you’ll forgive the nod to both Wittgenstein and Foucault, that what we are dealing with is the idea of language games, and more pertinently what I refer to as ‘knowledge games’.

You’re probably familiar with this idea, in some sense, from looking at the way history is and has been taught at school. When I was in school, at first sight what we were learning seemed to have very little to do with history- or at least with history as it was taught to my parent’s generation. Instead of learning a teleological view of history, from 1066 forwards, we learnt the basics of the historian’s craft- analysing a source, getting a picture of the period.

Such a way of teaching history is of course open to criticism. The problem is that the narrow view focussed on a single slice of history in all its complexity can lead to a loss of perspective, not to mention an unhealthy obsession with Hitler (the subject covered extensively in many GCSE classrooms) One could very well argue that some knowledge of the facts is essential. But which facts? And more importantly- whose facts? To return to my idea of ‘knowledge games’, what is happening here is that there are two models of history teaching, both of which may be valid, but whose thinking is reinforced by very different groups of people. To put it simply, what people believe- or rather what they are expected to believe- becomes the truth. At least, that is, where there is no clear referent to external ‘fact’, if such a thing can indeed be respected in the postmodern age. Water continues to boil at one hundred degrees celsius and fusion continues to occur in the sun. It is our interpretation of the facts that changes- our attitude to such knowledge.

So what this means for the artist as hero is clear: That idea belongs to a past where art was very different to today. One could even ask if such a thing as a genius- an artist as hero in his fullest manifestation- can exist in this day and age

This has to do with a shift in what artists are and in what they are expected to do. In an earlier age, it would seem ludicrous- even heretical- to ask what art is or what it is for. It was oil painting and statues, and it was there for detached aesthetic contemplation. In this sense, the move to a more reflexive art- a more abstract art that referred to its own visual language and its own history- is obviously to be welcomed. In our own time, such questions are ladled out at art college for examination and argument. In such an environment, the artist as hero seems a stale and bad idea.

Yet the artist as hero is perhaps an idea that exists between the two camps- writers, especially german writers in the nineteenth century- at the time longed to talk of an art that was a language, an abstracted form of communication. In a sense, such people have proved poor prophets- they can have no idea that a form of art thinking might develop where the very aims and ideas of art were their own subjects. As it is in the postmodern age. But in another sense, they were right on the money: abstract expressionism, and later abstract artists who have thrown off the early dogma, make art that really is focussed on visual language par excellence. It takes the intervention of pop art and french intellectuals such as the aforementioned foucault to turn such art into anything else. I often feel that the work of artists such as Gillian Carnegie (Who exhibitted a ‘black painting’ that turns out upon inspection to be a woodland scene) presents the best kind of fusion between the two worlds. In addition, it is playful. In other words, it’s fun.

And yet, somehow, a lot of us are left yearning for the ‘great’ art of the past. It’s one thing to enjoy paintings, it’s another to be transported, amazed by it. At our core, most of us long for an art that has power, that posseses the viewer with the kind of electric charge we might feel in front of, say, Whistler’s nocturnes. We can, however, have both. We can- and do- still look at the art of the past. What we also have to consider, though, is that each period has a right and a duty to make it’s own art and to make art its own. While questioning whether it’s possible to make something entirely new, we can also belive that sometimes, an artist is somebody who does just that.

Modernist art also participates in the idea of the artist as hero. Picasso is, for me, the clearest example of how such thought propagated itself in the twentieth century. His prolific output, his sometimes grand themes and his intense focus on the visual dynamic of power and effort all speak of such an idea. You can still go and see a spot of Picasso and marvel at his sheer energy.

So all this leaves the idea of artist as hero- as genius- hanging somewhere in the ether. It’s worth mentioning that perhaps the old art appreciation of the eighteenth, nineteenth and earlier centuries is still with us. What exactly is the gallery system other than a vehicle for appreciation and commerce? One could also cite advertising as a relic of the old order as John Berger does, arguing that it is in fact the ‘last, moribund form’ of the great oil paintings of the past. As a corollary, there is now an interaction between Art with a capital A and advertising- think of Jeff Koons, for example. The truth is that in many ways we still expect the artist to be a somehow enlightened being. One who sees further than others. But we must do so, it seems to me, with a healthy suspicion of such grand ideas and narratives. Today, we do some playfully, with self-awareness and irony. And so our ideas move on and change. They must. That which cannot change is dead.


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