Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What Makes a Great Artist? And More Questions

One of my readers asks: “What makes a ‘great artist?’ Why Picasso’s or Vangogh’s doodles are greater than mine?” She further asks: Why mostly great artists become great posthumously? Why their living years are a prolonged period of struggle? Is art an elite discipline? How does one know the ‘value’ of a work of art? if there is any value, who has the control of it, the artist or the one who buys it?

These questions are not new. Hence the answers also cannot be new either. These questions have been asked by many artists and art lovers all over the world and many people have answered them adequately at various points of time, depending on their ideological leaning. If someone from the current generation still asks these questions, then we should understand that the answers given so far are not adequate enough or rather these questions beg for answers in the renewed and renewing contexts. If such questions persist and refuse to fade away, we should also think that they are relevant questions. Like the questioner does I too deem them important and pertinent I make this attempt to answer them in my own fashion.

First of all I would say all these questions arise from the myth that always develops parallel to the academically informed art history. Art history originates out of a historical need to understand, verify and assess the value of a work of art produced in a given point of time to which the art historian takes an added interest. There are various methodologies to write art history and it heavily depends upon chronicles, diaries and art critical/appreciative writings as its source materials. Hence, there is an inter-relationship between the source materials and the art history refined out of it. As art history being a part of the economic activities evolve around a work of art, it unintentionally becomes a vehicle to create economic values. Art history, when translated, transcribed and transformed for popular use, which is a pre-requisite for making art collections/museums/galleries economically relevant, assumes the form of stories and myths, which add immensely to the mystery around the works. A work of art with certain amount of exclusivity and mystery around it attracts more people to it thereby turning the location of the work of art in question economically and culturally alluring. This view is applicable in the case of artists too.

An artist, whose work could transcend the barriers of temporal times, and whose world view could represent symbolically the times yet to come despite its adherence to the contemporary aesthetics, socio-political and religio-economic realities of his/her times, becomes a great artist mainly through the double mediation of history and mystery/mythology. Greatness is relative as we cannot weigh both Da Vinci and Damien Hirst using the same scale. While Da Vinci’s greatness is time tested, Hirst’s greatness is temporally created. While Da Vinci’s art has a mystery around it, Hirst’s has a very recent history, which is closely related to the economic activities. Often, art history has a hagiographic part, which paints the life of the artist in extra-ordinary colours. Most of the artists including Picasso and Vangogh come to us today with this hagiographic halo around them. For the maintenance of ideological and economic dominance over other regions, the west also has a vested interest in renewing mythologies and histories pertaining to them and their art in order to keep them permanently great, therefore world cultural icons.

Vangogh and Picasso stand at the ends of the same spectrum. While the former was absolutely a ‘struggling’ artist during his life time, Picasso was a living legend and superstar. Important thing is that while they were doing their works, they were not thinking about their future greatness. They were simply doing their works because they were born to create works of art. But they knew their self worth as artists that’s why despite all materialistic and spiritual troubles they kept on doing their works. History behaves funnily at times; sometimes it finds the greatness of the artists during their life time itself and at other times, it recognizes posthumously. As I mentioned above, economic activities around an artist is the reason for the late or early arrival of history or mystery. The ideal and purist art history and the identification of greatness happen in a different realm of scholarship where the artists whom the world once considered as irrelevant become relevant therefore great. But the catch is once such disinterested greatness is identified by some disinterested historians soon it will be co-opted by the art industry for economic purposes. However, I would say that greatness of an artist is not based on how history treats him or her. On the contrary, many a great artist remains unknown in areas where art related economic activities are not so vigorous. So an art teacher in a rural area could be a great visionary unacknowledged by the mainstream history. Greatness is relative to many other factors.

When you are great, you don’t go out there in the street and say that you are great. You don’t even hold a card proclaiming your greatness. Your greatness as an artist and as a human being is identified by your fellow beings. Greatness, if there is a definition for it, is like fragrance to flower; they cannot be separated. Proximity reduces the gravity of greatness because you know the person. The moment the person dies, we see him/her in a detached sense and realize the greatness of that person. But considering the economic activities around a dead master, one could say that dead masters do not produce any more works of art which automatically renders the existing works rare and exclusive. Hence, dead gain greatness and the living struggle. But the struggle, thanks to the art history of the west, is understood as material struggle and anarchy. But the myth busters say that most of the artists whom we consider as the perennial struggles were in fact well off people who were living on others’ expenses, including Vangogh. But the aspect of struggle gives them a romantic aura; they will be automatically considered as the people who have eschewed the world for higher purposes. The anarchy comes from their inherent sense of freedom. True, but it is percolated to us as worth following examples. So, most of the people who enter in the art colleges convert themselves into the religion called struggle and anarchy. But the truth is material struggle has very little to do with artistic struggle.

Try singing or dancing. If you are not a singer or a dancer you fail. But you are an aspirant. You keep trying. Here, the struggle that you undertake to become a dancer or a singer is the artistic struggle. It has a lot to do with finding the right rhythm and pace; it has a lot to do with injecting soul to your voice and movement. For a visual artist, finding a language of his own, or modifying the existing one to his satisfaction and developing on that is his/her real struggle. Find an internal balance with the expressive faculties and expression is the real struggle. Becoming one with the process of creativity is the struggle; it needs observation, study, practice and more practice. Once you achieve this rhythm, your intention and image become one and the same. Then the struggling period is over for you. But that does not assure you a period of greatness. You have achieved your rhythm and it is your freedom. Once you achieve that kind of freedom you could use any material, any medium and any idea which have found a place in your heart. Material struggle is an eyewash; it is the refuge of the lazy. Like any other human being, given no other chance, artists also would look for their food, security and comfort. That does not make you different or exceptional from other human beings.

Art is not anybody’s property. Anybody could be an artist. I should add that anybody who has inclination, talent and devotion could become an artist. Only because Joseph Beuys had said that anybody could be an artist, you need not rush to become one. Art could be cultivated by rich and poor alike. There was a time when most of the artists came from artisanal classes, though it was not a rule. Some people are genuinely talented and their class affiliations do not matter in them becoming an artist. There was a time when there used to be artists and patrons. Today, patrons themselves and their children do art, taking art to a different zone of experiences and expressions. I would say that though it is not bad, it has created some sort of imbalance in the arena of aesthetic creation, proliferation and consumption. To answer the final question, I would say that an artist knows the value of his works. But it is not the monetary value. Monetary value is created by others and the artists follow the rule only because they need to adjust to the market realities. It is neither a good nor a bad thing because this is the way things are. But the value remains even if an artist’s works remain unsold throughout his life. That value may or may not become monetary value. One cannot complaint.


vpbaalakrishnan said...

Very well written Johny!

Santanu Dhar said...

Very impressive & thoughtful....