Culture Magazine

Some Varieties of the Artist, and a Deflation

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
William Deresiewicz has a piece about art and artists in The Atlantic that is both interesting and suspicious: The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur. What's interesting is the capsule history of conceptions of artists and their art. What's suspicious is Deresiewicz's sense that he is somehow more in the know that you or I and that he is above it all. He's that kind of guy.
The capsule history goes from artisan, to artist, to professional. The artisan conception held up through the 17th century. Artisans were makers, craftsmen:
A whole constellation of ideas and practices accompanied this conception. Artists served apprenticeships, like other craftsmen, to learn the customary methods (hence the attributions one sees in museums: “workshop of Bellini” or “studio of Rembrandt”). Creativity was prized, but credibility and value derived, above all, from tradition. In a world still governed by a fairly rigid social structure, artists were grouped with the other artisans, somewhere in the middle or lower middle, below the merchants, let alone the aristocracy. Individual practitioners could come to be esteemed—think of the Dutch masters—but they were, precisely, masters, as in master craftsmen. The distinction between art and craft, in short, was weak at best. Indeed, the very concept of art as it was later understood—of Art—did not exist.
Underline that last sentence. It is very important. Not the least because Art (capital "A") is what Deresiewicz himself believes in, though he can't quite bring himself to say so. It is, in fact, the default concept in use today and underlies the rest.
Art as such got invented in the 18th and 19th centuries:
the period associated with Romanticism: the age of Rousseau, Goethe, Blake, and Beethoven, the age that taught itself to value not only individualism and originality but also rebellion and youth. Now it was desirable and even glamorous to break the rules and overthrow tradition—to reject society and blaze your own path. The age of revolution, it was also the age of secularization. As traditional belief became discredited, at least among the educated class, the arts emerged as the basis of a new creed, the place where people turned to put themselves in touch with higher truths.
Art rose to its zenith of spiritual prestige, and the artist rose along with it. The artisan became the genius: solitary, like a holy man; inspired, like a prophet; in touch with the unseen, his consciousness bulging into the future.
After WWII the production of Art was displaced from the (lone) genius to the professional with an MFA, a teaching gig, a gallery, an agent, and so forth:
The training was professional, and so was the work it produced. Expertise—or, in the mantra of the graduate programs, “technique”—not inspiration or tradition, became the currency of aesthetic authority. The artist-as-genius could sometimes pretend that his work was tossed off in a sacred frenzy, but no self-respecting artist-as-professional could afford to do likewise. They had to be seen to be working, and working hard (the badge of professional virtue), and it helped if they could explain to laypeople—deans, donors, journalists—what it was that they were doing.
The artist’s progress, in the postwar model, was also professional. You didn’t burst from obscurity to celebrity with a single astonishing work. You slowly climbed the ranks. You accumulated credentials. You amassed a résumé.
And then he stumbles:
Artisan, genius, professional: underlying all these models is the market. In blunter terms, they’re all about the way that you get paid. If the artisanal paradigm predates the emergence of modern capitalism—the age of the artisan was the age of the patron, with the artist as, essentially, a sort of feudal dependent—the paradigms of genius and professional were stages in the effort to adjust to it.
BFD. Everything is always about getting paid because you gotta' get paid to eat. This is the wisdom available to every college sophomore. And so:
There were overlaps, of course, between the different paradigms—long transitions, mixed and marginal cases, anticipations and survivals. The professional model remains the predominant one. But we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.
And that, we are told, is where we are now and even where things may end. And here comes the lament, several paragraphs later:
What we see in the new paradigm—in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity—is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? No doubt some of both, in a ratio that’s yet to be revealed.
The displacement of depth by breadth is evident in Deresiewicz himself. And now:
The democratization of taste, abetted by the Web, coincides with the democratization of creativity. The makers have the means to sell, but everybody has the means to make. And everybody’s using them. Everybody seems to fancy himself a writer, a musician, a visual artist. Apple figured this out a long time ago: that the best way to sell us its expensive tools is to convince us that we all have something unique and urgent to express.
And he simply assumes that these everybodies will be forever mindless, which is by no means obvious. His conclusion:
When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.
"A vessle for our inner life"–gimme a break. Is that what it is? My point is that Deresiewicz ends this debunking on a cliche, giving evidence that he hasn't got a clue and has no desire to think things through.
The historical sequence Deresiewicz outlines is worth thinking  through. But it's not merely about the marketplace. It is also about ideas and dreams, it really is. As for Art and the Genius, the other side of those conceptions is that they belong to a lucky few and the rest of us are just accountants and ditch-diggers, in need of them as "vessels" for our inner life. That conception is why hedge-fund billionaires fall for the hawkers of pickled sharks giant balloons. So maybe we start rebuilding by figuring out that we can all pickle sharks and blow up giant balloons. And then we'll go on to more interesting things.

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