Monday, January 21, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
As you are already aware, there is something very dishonest whenever you read a columnist’s account of a conversation he or she has had.
He/she will tell you only what reflects well on him/her.
I’ve lost count of the number of opinion pieces I’ve read in which a columnist reports a conversation, which just happens to confirm the columnist’s prejudices or show what razor-sharp wit the columnist has. Whenever I read such pieces, I mentally question their veracity. How often, I wonder, are they really revenge pieces in which the columnist is telling us what he/she wishes had been said after he/she has in reality been bested by a sharper interlocutor?
Obviously, as you interview your own word processor, you have the time to think up all the clever retorts and words of wisdom that you were not quick enough to think of in actual conversation with a real live human being.
Extending this line of reasoning, I also often wonder how much the dialogue of dramatists and novelists is a kind of wish-fulfilment from writers who have the time to be, on the page, the wits and reasoners that they are not in real life.
“Where on Earth is all this going?” you now squeal with impatience as you suffer yet another of my over-long and pompous introductions.
I am about to tell you about a conversation I recently had. It’s up to you whether you trust my version of not. But I have given you fair warning.
Anyway, there I was at somebody’s pre-Christmas banquet when I found myself seated opposite an attractive-looking engaged young couple, I surmise in their late twenties.
I asked their occupations. He said he was really a sculptor, but economics had forced him to earn his living doing other things. She said she was moving on from office work to taking a degree in Fine Arts.
My interest was piqued. I asked him about his sculpting, what studio space he used, what materials he used, what sort of things he was interested in making.
Well, he said, he conceived ideas for sculptures, but he didn’t do the actual making part. He “out-sourced” it to other people.
“But”, I objected, “how much are you the sculptor if other people physically make the sculptures?”
An exasperated look passed between him and her. Again it is only a surmise, but I sensed that they had heard this objection before and did not like it. It was the type of thing that uncouth Philistines said.
“That is how Art is done these days,” said the sculptor.
Dissatisfied with this response, I reiterated my objection. Surely an artist is somebody who actually makes something. Personally I have all manner of brilliant visual conceptions, but I would not describe myself as either artist or sculptor, even if I too could go off and “out-source” my ideas by getting somebody else to realize them. I do not have the training, talent or physical skill to be an artist or sculptor.
The Fine Arts student, admirably committed to her sculptor fiancé, butted in “Did you know that Michaelangelo’s students did 20% of the work in paintings ascribed to him?”
Clearly, she thought this her debate-winning killer question.
To her mild deflation I said that, yes, I was aware of the concept of the atelier and I was fully aware of a whole list of illustrious painters and sculptors who worked in collaboration with others. I gave a roll-call of names. But, I said, in such circumstances the whole design was not only conceived by the named artist, but was physically sketched out by him and largely painted by him, with assistants and collaborators coming in under his direction for specific and limited tasks. I never thought Michaelangelo painted all of the Sistine Chapel, but it is still his work.
“But that’s Artism!” said the Fine Arts student, now both flustered and a little furious.
At this point I realized a strategic withdrawal was in order. After all, it was a pre-Christmas banquet, this nice young couple were just out to enjoy each other’s company, and, opinionated prat though I am, I didn’t want to spoil their fun. So I steered the conversation to other, innocuous things.
Had I not done so, I would have become incensed at that vogue-ish neologism “Artism”, which is now much used in the Fine Arts and Art History sections of Academe. In was coined in pale imitation of the perfectly legitimate philosophical term “Scientism”, meaning the mistaken belief that Science can answer all our philosophical questions.
“Artism” means the foolish belief, indulged in only by uncultured people like me, that there really are great artists whose work deserves special respect and admiration. Those who succumb to “Artism”, the dogma goes, are those who do not realize that all art is collaborative and that the working of materials is not necessarily the same as the conception of the art-work. “Artism” puts on a pedestal a process that deserves de-mystification.
And, quite apart from all the patronising assumptions that are implicit in the word “Artism”, here we come to a very contentious issue indeed. How individual or how collaborative is the process of producing works of art?
It is odd that in Film Studies courses, students are still often sold the “auteur” theory of the sole visionary film director, even though film (even more than live theatre) is truly the most collaborative of all the arts. More generally, however, it is the view of art as collaboration that prevails.
I am fully aware that there have been great works of art produced atelier style, as described above. In the field of literature, it is well attested that most of Alexandre Dumas’ later novels (if you could actually call them great) were produced by Dumas suggesting an idea and a general outline to a hired team of writers, getting them to do the writing itself, and then returning only in the later stages to make revisions. The same appears to have been the modus operandi of Bertolt Brecht, much as some of his admirers still get angry at the fact [look up my review of Brecht and Co. – Sex, Politics and the Making of Modern Drama, on the index at right].
But despite this, I wonder. How much is the collaborative concept really the product of an egalitarian age, which wants to cut greater artists down to size? We want to believe that nobody has a vision greater or more penetrating than anybody else, so we coin words like “Artism” to make ourselves feel more comfortable in our collaborative mediocrity as we out-source our conceptions to craftsmen who know their job.
At least that is what I, silently and diplomatically, got from a banquet table exchange.
But you’re not bound to believe my version.