A Portrait of the Artist

Andreas van Du╠łhren

Apparently there is no lack of discussion about art. Aspects, contexts, intentions may change, even the pieces of work may not be present, the term and the subject matter remain. Strangely enough, no one seems to consider the entity which is supposed to produce those works of art; it is a human being – so we should know something about it – and we are used to call it »artist«. In a time when everyone is eager to check and define, to compare and predict, the artist stays almost untouchable – while the profession has been incorporated into the event culture, the cultural system equalized with the academic field, the academy reduced to just another high school, the school to some eternal kindergarten; while there is no critique anymore, as there is no independent journalism anymore and no academic faculty promoting the art of writing, that is, of thinking ... That is, while Western societies have been taken several measures to standardize the profession, the artist has become a blurring figure; at least, if we would have to summarize the crucial elements of an artist's existence, we would find almost none of those at a young person the same society expects to continue the tradition.
This might be just some vague and overly polemic suggestion, if we wouldn't know that naming a few of these elements would shock any art student, let's say, in central Europe. The capability of turning subjective conception into objective concepts, and that this capability is inevitably connected with the discipline of drawing – leave aside the proper usage of language; the basic techniques of research – which implies a certain persistence: not to stop until there is a solid result; the passion for exactness and precision; the strength for keeping an independent view, also for staying alone, not being confirmed and promoted, relying on instinct rather than on any thesis, on correcting oneself rather than on proving oneself right; or, quite profane, referring to some encyclopedia instead of Wikipedia. We may be blamed for sticking to a catalogue of rather conservative conditions, only that all too often we see that young people, while failing in those respects, have not elaborated any alternatives.
Obviously it's not about some old-school attitudes being naturally overruled by new virtues; or, if we admit that there are new virtues, we have to state that these don't provide for a life of an artist. For centuries there have been two terms mainly characterizing the artist: talent and virtuosity – with the former representing rather what is given, the latter what has to be achieved, and both having become almost taboo. Without stepping into an all too deep analysis of our society, we may say that anything given – which always means: to some more than to others – is less and less tolerated, held as irrational, if not reactionary; on the other hand, that there are goods one has to strive for – instead of claiming it, according to some law, or just buying it – is now regarded as embarrassing, if not scandalous, like nature itself, or like reality.
By pointing out those two terms, we don't want to insist: anyone may feel invited to replace them, but then the matter remains the same, and so far no one has made even an effort to explain by what means the crucial elements of an artist's existence could be replaced. But we introduced two other key words: reality and existence. It is not at all a romantic notion that within an artist's life there is a specific interaction of the professional and the personal constitution which exposes the artist in a sense of formal integrity; this formal integrity implies a constant reflection on concept and practice, which we may as well call »explicit existence«. And the mere fact of a piece of work being the ultimately coherent statement by an artist – reminding us of truth being evident only in the mode of what has been done – shows the artist's natural relation to reality.
Consequently, with both terms indicating the intransigent, we understand why existence and reality have become such a provocation to the contemporary, who has got used to consider any situation being just some option for another variation. On the other hand it seems strange that, at a time when we have become highly aware of conditions and relations, reasons and measurements, the particular profession of an artist is held like a myth. Fact is that an increasing number of young people are invited to study art at some academy, but one gets the impression that the same society withdraws that invitation on almost every other field where those students would have to be enabled to elaborate a practice according to the demands of creativity. This is a contradiction we don't necessarily have to call »hypocrisy«; yet it shows society in a critical state.
However we may define creativity, we cannot ignore the moment of transformation – but, transformation with unpredictable results; and it seems that society is not willing to stand that moment anymore – and to support those capabilities required in order to master it. Perhaps society itself has become too much of an object of transformation, so that any distinct reflection of that moment causes too much of a discomfort.
It would be misleading to point out that the artist has always been a provocation to those who have to organize their lives according to the common sense; this common sense has for a long time implied that moment of transformation: in terms of religion or any ideal suggesting something beyond. Now, anything beyond has become a frightening force, while too many variations of the status quo offer an overwhelming confirmation.
We may not have to wait long for society taking an honest decision: that it doesn't need the artist anymore, that it doesn't want any of its members to reach out anymore.