Following the Cult of the Artist
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author.
This episode is very interesting to me as a one time student of Art History, it made me realize just how absolutely Western-centric our college survey courses tend to be. The narrative generally starts in Sumer and Egypt, then spreads to Mycenaean, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval European, Italian Renaissance, Northern Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Postwar, Contemporary. It's as if an arrow originates in Mesopotamia and its trajectory leads towards the New World. At least that's how we learn it here in America. Chinese art, Islamic art, African art – all of these subjects feel like brief asides to the Hegelian arc of the Story of Art.
I remember just briefly learning about Islamic art and architecture in my Art History 101 course, and having to memorize every architectural element of a cathedral. Why do I remember the words “nave”, “transept”, or how peristyles were adapted from Greek and Roman architecture in the Italian Renaissance? Yet I have no recollection of learning that the Islamic world was in the midst of a Renaissance at the same time as Italy was? I suppose it’s all about who is telling the story, and where they want the narrative to lead.
Stories are important, and what gets left out is sometimes quite telling. I know at some point I learned that Michelangelo was an architect as well as an incomparable sculptor and painter, but it is not mentioned much in the popular narrative regarding the artist. So many of his grand achievements are mentioned in one breath, but “architect of St Peters Basilica” is not one I frequently hear. I think it has to do with a key term mentioned in this segment “cult of the artist”. As an artist I often see these stereotypes presented: architects are viewed as the cool eccentric geniuses that are so smart they never have to get their hands dirty, they orchestrate in their mind's eye and conduct a symphony of laborers to construct a masterpiece; visual artists are presented as mad geniuses, slaving away in a garret dirtying themselves with ground up bits of earth, or hammering away at slabs of stone in some ecstatic revelry. These two archetypal images that are summoned by the words “artist” and “architect” seem to be diametrically opposed, and it's hard enough to reconcile that one person could master sculpting and painting to such an astounding degree, but near impossible to add architect into the mix. Michelangelo, in retrospect makes Leonardo Da Vinci look like a dilettante, a dabbler who never had much to show for his efforts by comparison.
As an artist I often see these stereotypes presented: architects are viewed as the cool eccentric geniuses ... visual artists are presented as mad geniuses.
Something that is incredibly interesting about the Italian Renaissance that is talked about in this episode is the sea-change for artists from being craftspeople toiling in anonymity to “superheroes”; sought out celebrities, household names. This episode makes an interesting and to me more controversial choice than my decision to label Leonardo a failure in the last paragraph, and that is to include Damien Hirst. Hirst is a problematic artist to many, following in the long tradition of artists like Warhol, Koons, and other “l'enfant terrible”. Like other artists of this ilk, I find myself wavering over time in my opinions of Hirst. When I was a much younger artist reading about all of his conceptually scintillating installation works, I found it all so titillating for a lack of a better term, and was inspired to conceive of dangerous art installations of my own (all of which only ever existed in detailed drawings and notes in sketchbooks).
Now, as an older artist, on occasion I feel like he is less “superhero” and more “superstar”, a celebrity who has been churning out a lot of blah commodities with meh conceptual underpinnings for quite some time. The personality overwhelms the perception and the value of the work many times. There is a great irony present here for me too, presenting Hirst right after discussing how artists were once anonymous craftspeople, when most of the works of Hirst, Warhol, Koons, and so many others are the product of groups of craftspeople anonymously churning out work in the style of the NAME above the door.
I am prone to look at this all very cynically, and likely to sound bitter about the process. But I have to acknowledge that it's not very different than the systems that were in place during the Italian Renaissance, and for quite some time after. Some of my favorite contemporary artists like Julie Mehretu hire huge teams of assistants to accomplish their projects. I've had to hire other artists to help me with commercial projects in the past, so I understand the need for assistance, but sometimes it feels to me like people like Hirst are less “artists” and more “art directors”.
Now I choose my own narrative path, and skip over the Mughal Empire segment since my arrow finds no purchase. From a “bad boy” of contemporary art, to the original rebels of art: Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Velasquez, Rembrandt. They represent a true Renaissance, the rebirth of the cult of the artist.
As an artist, I have to admit that I buy into the “cult of the artist” established by the Italian Renaissance.
Some have theorized that the earliest artists were shaman, religious leaders engaged in ritual acts of magic. I picture them as being excused from the day to day activities of simple survival, to engage in and master an activity that holds a deeper meaning to our species. Suddenly, during the Renaissance artists wrested back the freedom to impose their own ideas, their own personalities, to enact their own visions in a shamanistic way.
There are philosophical issues that arise here, towards the end of the episode. Important ones regarding the differences between art and craft, if there are indeed differences. I have grown up in a culture that makes those distinctions, and it is hard for me not to make them myself. Many artistic traditions throughout the world value anonymity, their art is not about the individual. It is about echoing tradition, reverberating cultural norms and values, reinforcing the society as a whole.
If anything, in the West artists are viewed by and large as undermining society.
As an artist, I have to admit that I buy into the “cult of the artist” established by the Italian Renaissance. I have great technical facility as a craftsman; I have the capability of doing just about anything someone might assign me as a task. But that is the point, I chomp at the bit, refuse the bridle- the thought of having to sit and paint those beautiful miniatures of the Mughal Empire brings on the specter of a panic attack. If I was not free to do as I want as an artist, I would've rethought it as a calling by now.
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”
I feel that this statement by Bertolt Brecht is a concise summation of the true artistic tradition established by the artists of the Italian and Northern Renaissances for the Western world. It is a tradition that values constant rebellion, fluctuating little renaissances. It's not better or worse than any other artistic tradition in the world, it's just the distinction.
Nikos Fyodor Rutkowski is an abstract painter based in Columbus Ohio. In that capacity he is represented by the gallery Contemporary Art Matters. He is also a special effects artist and co-owner of Cave Bear Studios, making monsters and such. He often hopes that the two authors he was named after have had no effect on his temperament, and to that aim has never finished any of their novels. He is married to a brilliant hospice social worker. Together they have three beautiful boys.