Now the Pickle
Her Beautiful But Evil Space Highness has an issue with her interwebz (look, a BBES Princess is no match for Space Bureaucracy. This should be self-evident. Just because one possesses, in one’s delicate and feminine but iron fist, the power to crush stars and snuff out the lives of billions and billions of innocent peons does not exempt one from waiting for the Soulless Technician to show up. Sometime between eight and noon. Perhaps. If the stars are in alignment and Mercury isn’t retrograde. What do I know: I just minion here.) and between oppressing her latest planetary acquisition and and asked me to fill in. So instead of a novel Novel Writing Seminar post, you get to listen to me philosophy-ize. Lucky you.
I read a thing yesterday (full disclaimer: Mrs. Dave read it to me while I cooked dinner. Then we argued about it, and then I read it after dinner and putting Wee Dave to bed for the night in his super-duper suspendy baby hammock. It’s a thing, and we all like it.) wherein a writer for the Atlantic bemoaned the shift in what it means to be an artist. Fuller disclaimer: I’m prone to growling at such things as passive-aggressive elitist twaddle, as much as I am to considering them in anything resembling an objective position. I’m curious on your take on it.
What immediately came to me was a clip from Men in Black 3, wherein our heroes attend a shindig in the 60s, and encounter Andy Warhol.
Most of the article is taken up in a fairly solid explication of what it has meant to be an artist through the last few hundred years. Words like artisan, poet, and playwright denote a craftsman’s status. One who constructs a thing; a worker and a creator. Michelangelo and Shakespeare fall into this category, and the implication is that this is how they, and Kit Marlowe (though perhaps not) thought about themselves and how their contemporaries thought of them. This was the world in which an artist (or other artisan) was lucky to find a wealthy patron to finance their lives while they created.
Later, an artist came to be a mythical creature, huddled in a chilly Parisian garret suffering for their art and subsisting on baguette crusts and dreams. The best of this era became the equivalent of rock stars, sponsored into high society by (yet more) wealthy patrons who would shower them with wealth and material comforts (and lots and lots of booze, I shouldn’t wonder) and they would move among the high and powerful as a figure of mystery and wit and enlighten even these mighty with the burgeoning greatness of their art. This was a time where Art (note the capital) was inspired in tortured genius by some mystic muse.
Then, as time marched through the end of the modern age and into the postmodern, what it meant to be an artist changed again. It was important to be a professional, and sufficiently credentialed. One attended the appropriate university, learned techniques and sat in lectures, spent hours practicing, and then graduated. One found a job, often in conjunction with a school of some sort, and worked at one’s art. The artist was a professional like any other, putting in hours; paying dues.
Now? Well, now we’re turning into something else, apparently. No longer is the artist a solitary figure, struggling to bring forth a work. No, we’re now exchanging depth of discipline for breadth of versatility. Artists now study many disciplines, the better to appeal to a broader market. Indeed, it would seem that the End of the Gatekeepers is nigh, and the hoi polloi are making a mockery of Art. It’s possible I’m reading things into the article, but while I found a lot of useful information in it – and outright enjoyed reading most of it – I can’t help but grouch at the writer’s conclusions.
There’s a fundamental misunderstanding at work, here. Namely, it’s not that artists are now working to appeal to the market (instead of working to create good art, it is to be understood). Truly, artists have always worked to appeal to a market. The disconnect here is what that market was in the past, and what it is now. The author of the article gets so close. Art is work, and the worker should be worth his wages. But the worker still must get paid.
Look, Niccolo Machiavelli wasn’t writing The Prince for the average Florentine (or was he? Gramsci would evidently argue otherwise, and to him I give a slap on the nose. Silly commie.) because none of them could PAY HIM. At least, not enough to survive on. This is why you never see any great works dedicated to the guy who lived on the corner and made children smile. Nope. You dedicated your book to someone with wealth, in the hope they’d take an interest in this common artisan with the intriguing ideas and – incidentally – excellent judge of character.
The same remains true, though the market has now shifted. No longer are we forced by necessity to appeal to a small group of money’d oligarchs. Or rather, we are, but the pool has gotten MUCH larger. But we still appeal to our market in the hopes they pay our bills. That hasn’t changed. Art is nice, don’t get me wrong. Truth and Beauty are nice work, if you can get it. But Platonic absolutes don’t put food on the table or keep Wee Dave in onesies and liver pate. Indeed, the set of those who can pursue Ideal for Ideal’s sake is limited to the set of those who can do so for no remuneration. Namely, the amateur hobbyist and the financially independent dilettante.
For the rest of us lowly mortals, we must continue the slog. Develop your skill sets and your markets, hone your craft. Continue your education and work your nets. Treat your job like it’s a job (I’m bad at this. I blame the 8 month old psychic vampire who’s recently taken up residence in my domicile.) and get paid. Doing art is good. Getting paid for making it is better. Leave the determination and analysis of Art to another generation. One with no skin in the game.