October 10, 2010

art vs. the artist

How do you separate the art from the artist? And should you?

I used to be annoyed at the 'artists as flakes' stereotype because it seemed like an anti-intellectual designation to me, and my experience of artists is that the good ones have to be pretty damned smart. The dilettantes (who, admittedly, vastly outnumber the good ones) not so much. It's much the same in any other creative or professional category, though I think it's only actors who get more of a bad rap than artists.

Then there's the artist as massive, throbbing ego stereotype. Also just a stereotype? These days I'm thinking that this one is a lot closer to the truth, and, unlike being a hippie space cadet, being a pathological narcissist can enhance an artist's career. It's just the nature of our celebrity-obsessed culture. After all, the combination of prodigious ego with prodigious talent can produce a Picasso, and we just can't look away. Without the ego would we have bothered to check out the talent?

Two 'videos' got me going down this road. Yesterday I was watching Star Portraits, Bravo's art reality program, and the personality that the three artists were asked to paint was Gordon Pinsent, one of Canada's most well-respected actors. I knew nothing of the actor as a man, so was amazed at how humble and gracious he appeared in the show. After enduring many 'theatre crowd' parties at my uncle's house ("But enough about me. Let's talk about you. What do you think about me?") I was surprised at how 'un-actor-like' Pinsent seemed. It caused me to doubly respect his work, because he blew apart the narcissistic Hollywood personality stereotype. The episode is online here.

The second video is an almost two-year-old 60 Minutes segment on Julian Schnabel I stumbled across this morning:

This is worth watching because of the sudden shift in the tone of the program about two-thirds of the way through. When the interviewer admires Schnabel's career and marketing savvy and versatility the 12-minute segment has an almost reverent tone. Then, when questioned about Robert Hughes' criticism of his work, the artist turns petulant and comes this close to a temper tantrum. It blows my mind when an artist like Julian Schnabel who (a) courts controversy and (b) agrees to be interviewed on an investigative-journalism style television program is competely surprised by criticism. Maybe he believes the old chestnut about there being no such thing as bad publicity. Well, yeah, as long as you keep your mouth zipped. But let's face it, shooting yourself in the foot is just, well, bad publicity. (On a good publicity note, check out the exhibition of Schnabel's Polaroid photos that just opened in London. More about the camera he used here.)

Earlier this year I observed another example of this. Artist Hazel Dooney gained attention and notoriety early in her career with controversial subject matter, slick and accessible images and a frankly sexual public persona. Her artwork is collected and valued in Australia. On her blog she appears as serious, uncompromising, highly intelligent and a rebel pioneer, yet vulnerable and human. I used to love reading it. The comments section was telling in some ways: mostly filled with the love of fans and sycophants though she also allowed the occasional criticism to stand without censorship. She followed a code that seemed dignified and fair by reacting to neither. (She did, however, write the occasional post designed to tear a strip off her more serious critics -- and why not? It's her blog.) Then she joined Facebook. Let's face it, love it or hate it, Facebook is a more democratic format and interaction is encouraged. So she did. And then her cover was blown. Her tireless obsession with self promotion and complete disinterest in anything other than herself was a bit unnerving at first, but not completely surprising. After all, I'd been reading her blog. Then she shot herself in the foot. Every time someone commented on one of her status updates in a way she thought was critical of her, her work or her opinion (and more often than not it wasn't) she'd react like a pouting, defensive brat, completely devoid of humour, self deprecation and perspective. It was a little chilling to observe the narcissist exposed. What was even more chilling was how quickly I started to question her often insightful observations on art and the art world. I was never a fan of her art but I loved her intellect.

At the end of the day I truly believe that art should be judged solely on its own merits, and to hell with the artist, but where does one end and the other begin? The cult of personality is an insidious presence, both positive (Gordon Pinsent) and negative (Julian Schnabel) and I'm not immune. Maybe there really is no such thing as bad publicity.


Ellen said...

Hayden, you're absolutely right, as soon as I posted that comment, I knew it wasn't accurate, ego is everywhere, but when I think about scientists like Einstein or Hawkings, there is a fascination with their ideas not with themselves and also some self depreciating humour there (so I'm probably limiting my lesser ego comments to theoretical physicists:) Ego in art just looks more pronounced and pathetic. Schnabel wrote an autobiography when he was 35, and his comments about the moment the idea for his plate platings came to him when he was at the Sally Ann are absurdly self important. In science only the insane wouldn't acknowledge that their discoveries are only possible with the research that's gone on before, but in the arts, you get narcissists who act like they've recreated the entire field of art out of a vacuum.

Ellen said...

Andrea that comic is hilarious, I have a slight taste of sour grapes in my mouth:)

A.Pratt said...

Just read your blog posting and could not agree more about the Schnabel Interview or his apparent vainty issues.
Being "avante Garde" is swell in the wide world of Art but being a maniacal egotist gets you shown the door more often than not...... At least in my small corner of the Art world. :)

andrea said...

Donald: Thanks for your very interesting input. And reading the list you provided of artists who weren't/aren't egostists makes me feel a lot better. I think blatant attention-getting works to GET that initial attention, but can't hold it. There's no question that innovative artists are ahead of their time rather than of their time. Well worth remembering.