The Myth of the Artist

Express Yourself

Do you believe in the Artist? It’s a loaded question, to be sure: the word “believe” already carries with it connotations of faith, dedication, and worship of a higher, mystical being, while “artist” is a title that asserts authority, individualism, and universality all on its own terms. But as melodramatic as it might sound, it’s a serious issue worth examining, as the endless idealization of the creative figure throughout history has prompted the emergence of a dangerous cult of believers. I, myself, was once a member.

It is easy to fall for the Artist—that figure sitting atop a cult of personality, every move perceived as an act of creative genius, a critical darling with unusually popular appeal. Thanks to the gripping prose of many a romanticized New Yorker profile and America’s own historical allegiance to supposedly rugged individualism and celebrity culture, the Artist has worn many iconic faces. At times he—and the Artist is almost always a “he”—has appeared as the intense brooder with brush in one hand and liquor bottle in the other. A cigarette might have once sat behind his now self-mutilated ear. At other times he has worn a furrowed brow beneath an understated bandana, playing the role of misunderstood genius, too sensitive and self-conscious for his own good.

While some may find it easy to dismiss these sketches as mere clichés, as descriptions fit only for hipster Halloween costumes, I find that most people actually find themselves allured by the magical opacity of the Artist. But like all magic, the Artist’s appeal is a trick that we are all too comfortable buying. In fact, the very existence of such a collective notion of creative genius reveals more about our own insecurities and needs for identification than the actual human being at hand. Moreover, it creates certain preconceptions and problematic pressures for those individuals who are still testing the waters of creative expression.

For one thing, the belief in the Artist mistakenly assigns a certain look and feel to talent itself, presupposing that innate skill will and must manifest itself in a particular persona. If, let’s say, we make the Artist out to be a bold revolutionary, someone who valiantly battles societal conventions, then we might forget that true talent (and true revolutionary potential) may be found equally in timid and initially hesitant individuals. On the other hand, if we always associate the Artist with silent pensiveness and reclusion, we might be too quick to dismiss his garrulous counterpart, assuming that compulsive outspokenness is somehow meaningless noise compared to the repressed, churning ideas of the reserved introvert.

Once the grand title of Artistry has been attributed to an individual, cultural critics quickly fall into the trap of projecting predetermined opinions in hopes of merely affirming their belief in the Artist’s existence. Take, for instance, the many notes, sketches, and diaries that galleries and publishers have exhibited after a particular artist’s death. This impulse reveals a desire to bestow brilliance upon what may have been simply a discarded draft or working scrap of paper, as spectators forget that the deceased may have hidden these projects for any number of reasons—reasons that include questionable quality. In these instances, the degree to which a figure is overrated or underrated as an “Artist” also emerges, often further clouding the consumer’s judgment.

But perhaps the Artist as a social construct is most harmful not to the critic but to the artist of tomorrow. For, even those who have the greatest creative potential will find themselves feeling uninspired, discouraged, and un-Artistic enough at times. In these moments, it is essential that the individual steer clear of the myth I’ve noted. If we start believing in the Artist too much, we might just stop believing in ourselves.

—Columnist Jennifer T. Soong can be reached at jsoong@college.harvard.edu.

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