A Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Man

by Barry Drogin

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The concept, the idea, of "the artist" died with the twentieth century. I will accept the term "creator." I will accept "entrepreneur." I am willing to use words like "taste," "beauty," and even "aesthetics." I am a "composer" because that's what I do, I compose music. But the myth, the mystique, the purity of the "artist" is an ideal I have long ago lost faith in.

This must go beyond regretting the impossibility of achieving some dream of an ideal world where a country's culture restores respect, honor and recognition to "artists" and their work. I am willing to go so far as to actively take issue with such a dream, to question the purpose and ramifications of implementing steps toward such an idealization or convincing others to believe in it as well. I posit that the dream is not a dream but a deception, a fraudulent hoax. In "Love and Idols," I expressed a theological viewpoint that nineteenth century concepts of love, as well as of poetry and music (i.e., art), were forms of idolatry. I continue to see no reason to back down from that viewpoint, and plenty of reasons to go further.

Notions that "art" occupies a separate sphere from other forms of public discourse have been held up to ridicule by many modern artists (or should we say "anti-artists") for a long time now. Yet we still have institutions, economies and rackets devoted to preserving the mythology. It is akin to indoctrination, induction into a priesthood. It has become indefensible, and must be actively discouraged.

I am not against aesthetic pleasure, and establishing the means for delivery of same. But I am in favor of a discourse that is practical in nature, and is not reliant on an incantory repetition of equally elusive terms such as "great" and "masterpiece." And like Brecht, I would question the motives of a piece that was "moving" for its own sake.

I am suspicious of the usefulness of standards and judgmental criteria. It's not that, for example, I do not believe that a particular performer is not more capable than I am - I know that I cannot play numerous piano pieces to any degree of proficiency. But if what distinguishes one pianist from another is interpretation, then it is possible that, with sufficient electro-mechanical support, I could be as intelligently interpretative a pianist as any alive today. If a piano is merely a technological way of making a sound that I could not make unassisted, then additional technology that allows me to "play" a piece is just a further evolution of the instrument - except where there are economic interests opposed to such an evolution.

Similarly, when creators and performers are passing out trophies to each other for capabilities that have become so minimal, what is to be made of a term such as "best"? Certainly being photogenic or sexy, having charisma, being unique in some biological way, or having some extraordinary back story were never intended to be "artistic" criteria, so why belabor the point?

I can accept genius, although the world's ability to appreciate it is thin and tenuous. A genius is only recognized by others striving to accomplish similar ends. Where others do not exist, genius goes unrecognized. Similarly, if genius is too unique, it lies undiscovered by incomprehensibility. On a practical level, these problems serve to make a system that professes to recognize and promote "genius" as suspect.

Instead, a purely consumerist approach to aesthetic objects, but without the advertising language developed for the "art" mythology, would be agreeable. Perhaps it is time to reduce all "art" to craft, rather than to elevate craft to "art." An aesthetic object or experience is created, and is valued based on supply and demand. Preservation of previously created aesthetic objects is not a national/cultural priority, except for historical or scientific reasons. Instead of international cultural exchange of touristic traditions, we should promote international collaboration and cross-cultural development.

The high brow/low brow/no brow debate still assumes an underlying value system called "art." Once this value system is removed, the debate is meaningless. We can be appalled by Yanni because of our taste, but not because Yanni is or isn't an "artist."

Similarly, high-minded rejection of what an "artist" does or does not do is naively quaint in a world where "selling out" is routine and the famous are sex objects. Until the twentieth century, "artists" were considered by Western cultures as despicable entertainers, immoral prostitutes, wandering outcasts, menial servants. Then a mythology was created that sought to elevate some to a level of cultural respect inconsistent with human nature. Except for monetary reward, "the arts" and "artists" are sinking back to their origins. I see nothing wrong with this.

"Selling out" is more properly evaluated in terms of a potential audience's expectations. Those who expect a certain aesthetic experience from a particular creator or performer are disappointed when that person participates in a different mode of expression. In order to cross over or cash in on another audience's market, the individual executes a kind of consumer fraud on a pre-existing fan's desires and taste. The fan's definition of "art," however, must be made irrelevant to the discussion.

Similarly, the culture should re-evaluate an economic justification for forms that require the preservation of large edifices, vast operating staffs, significant "charitable" contributions and the like. Communal experiences on this scale serve a corporate mindset and add to the aesthetic experience a hierarchical ritual based on wealth. Technology-based forms (such as movies, music recordings, books, etc.) give every member of the audience the best seat in the house. Forms that eschew technology (such as "live" dance and theater) should be intimate and more participatory for an audience. This could be extended to non-aesthetic communal experiences, like sports, as well - I enjoyed a local minor league baseball game much more than I ever experienced a major league game, and I assume I will enjoy my son's little league games even more.

The transition to an "art"-less world has been going on for some time now. "Arts" institutions, oblivious to their own irrelevance and decline, concoct schemes to lure "new audiences" to their shrines. Anyone and everyone can establish their own website, and "artists" displaying their wares are facing the reality of their relative irrelevance as well. Content's lure as an advertising medium is in decline, and the Internet primarily exists for sexual gratification and impersonal one-to-one and one-to-many text-based communications, with non-aesthetic content delivery a distant third. Except for a few designated superstars, the line between amateur and professional has been blurring, as reality television demonstrates. Interest in the Oscars, as well as the Olympics, the World Series, and the Super Bowl, has peaked. The mass media has saturated our attention spans, and media events, from election speeches to crime reports, are received with suspicion and cynicism, or ignored altogether.

These media events are delivered in aesthetic packages, with theme music, half-time shows, dance routines, and so on. One can receive national news from comedy routines and monologues. As advertising appropriates in short order the latest aesthetic innovations, most of the audience experiences such innovations first from the advertising. The thrill of experiencing the innovative animation of Speilberg's "Jurassic Park" (guarded anxiously from the media) is gone, the preview of Disney's "Dinosaur" more moving than the movie itself.

Stand-alone aesthetic experiences that purport to be more than they actually are seem positively quaint in comparison. We live in a world of roller coasters and theme parks, of multi-channel television and satellite links, of atomic bombs and space exploration, of substance abuse and corporate globalization. A song is just a song. Rose is a rose is a rose. You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, we all want to change the world.

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Last Updated: November 11, 2007