Saturday, 9 May 2020

The artist at home and abroad

Cliché is the reification of an idea. To illustrate my point I want to look at two images, showing artists, that I found on Twitter. One is a portrait of composer Erik Satie by Santiago Rusinol (1861-1931). Dated 1891, it shows a young man sitting alone in what we imagine is a room. His boots are on the floor and his backside is upon a hard, wooden bench. The room is cold: the man sits near a fire burning behind a grate but the fire is meagre. A few books sit discretely on the mantlepiece above the fireplace. There is a mirror on the wall above the mantlepiece and some clippings and illustrations stuck to the wall. It’s an image that screams “poverty” and is titled ‘The Bohemian’.

The second image is a more recent one. It is by American artist Scott Gustafson and is an illustration, showing American author Edgar Allen Poe, from the children’s novel ‘Eddie: The Lost Youth of Edgar Allan Poe’ (2011). It has a young man sitting in an ample chair, his body stretched out in a comfortable pose, his fist supporting his chin. Behind him is a grandfather clock and in front of him, on a table, is a skull. The clockface tells the time: almost midnight. Heavy curtains are held back by cords and a candelabra on the table gives off ample light, in fact it blazes more brightly than Rusinol’s fire.

Gustafson is aged in his 60s and for me the troubling thing is that, in his image, Poe – gazing straight at the viewer with lowered eyes full of passion and intensity – looks like a caricature of a bad-guy from some second-rate spy thriller, an arrogant bully who dispenses arbitrary justice on a whim at the expense of some poor wretch who is brought in, to see the boss, by armed toughs.

Obviously, the two images have little in common apart from a link to the 19th century: the era to which we owe the most. (Who we are is an idea that was first imagined at the end of the preceding century, the century that saw the American Revolution, and what we value in terms of cultural products are therefore often of the 19th century. We are children of the revolution. The founding document of the Romantic revival was published in 1797 though there were proto-Romantics publishing works of poetry in the decades leading up to that date; the Romantics acknowledged their debts to those men and women.)


The domestic interiors shown in the two images are of one vintage but the messages, in either case, could not differ more. I am an authority on neither the period nor the people but there are good reasons to imagine that Poe, like Satie, was poor and often cold at home. What the second image shows is not the reality of Poe, but that of his readers. Their opinions are captured in ink on paper, transposed backwards time to an era where they didn’t exist except in the minds of a few. The majority ignored Poe (1809-1849), who was born two generations before Satie (1866-1925).

Both men were more famous after their deaths than when they were when alive, so what we see in the second image, due to the effects of the passage of time, is the artist triumphant at the same time as the artist as the outcast (the lowered eyes, the intense gaze, the slouch, the jester on a stick, the mask). What we see in this image is very different from what a person alive at the time must have witnessed. It is an oxymoron of a most flagrant kind. The outcast of this image cannot have existed in reality because of his status as an outcast. The outcast is recast as the ultimate insider, the chosen one. It is an old story, and telling it never drains it of vitality (e.g. James Wan’s ‘Aquaman’ of 2018).  The nub remains the same, only the forms, with time, alter. The most popular book of all time is based on the same theme. 

The New Testament is also a reification of an idea. The figure of the artist is managed into a scenario that suits our desires but that does violence to the truth. The first image is an authentic rendition of the home of an artist. The second image belongs in the province of cliché even though it contains an essential truth: the artist is resilient though poor, determined to show the truth though the bounty of the world is withheld from him [sic]. It also layers ourselves over the image of the artist, who is always a person who enables an exchange. Money for product, but also attention for comprehension. The artist beguiles the reader or viewer with popular tropes so that they will accept other, more difficult ideas, ones that without help would have no way to be expressed. Innovation takes place incrementally, not in leaps and bounds. One thing leads to another, and then another, and before you know it you have a new aesthetic mode. In art, as in diplomacy, there is a certain amount of flattery involved. Without it no message would get through. 

But the artist, even though he or she uses flattery, often struggles to find time to do what he or she loves doing due to the necessity or earning money some other way. The jester on the stick and the mask, furthermore, help to render the artist in Gustafson’s image as everyman [sic]: we feign compliance in order to get by because we know that if we didn’t lie all the time we’d lose our livelihoods. 


It shouldn’t be necessary for me to ask which image is more accurate; your conclusion in the question must be unambiguous. The first image shows what life was really like and the second shows how we want it to have been. Despite its lack of authenticity – Gustafson has taken a 19th century image of the artist and replaced it with a 21st century cliché – the second image shows a complex reality. And it comes complete with all the trappings of the genre, even down to the open book lying haphazard on the floor (as though flung down, in a passion, by the sitter; an instant of justifiable rage). He is showing us what we want, in place of what was. 

Like a Renaissance monarch, we rewrite history to suit our tastes: the artist is talented therefore must be rewarded (even if, when alive, he was not adequately rewarded financially). Gustafson’s Poe is amphibian, and can live inside the mainstream as well as retain his legitimacy as an outsider and critic of it. As in ‘Aquaman’, where the eponymous character can live in and out of water because he possesses a noble lineage. (In the movie, mere mortals are not able to complete this trick and can only live on land if they are inside a special suit that contains water, the element that sustains their lives. Such creatures fight and achieve agency on dry land but they are vulnerable because if their suit is breached, they instantly die.) Rusinol’s Satie is a fish and can only live in water but the idea embodied in his painting, though alienated from the context in which it was born, has been transposed by Gustafson and placed in a new pond in a different time.

The bully-boy Poe of Gustafson’s drawing is troubling for me. It is essentially a 20th century image. People on the left side of politics often hold up some lone genius, like the writer in question, as one of Percy Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world” though the artist as political functionary might be less appealing if Gustafson’s vision were realised in fact, rather than in fantasy. A dour, brooding tyrant is all too commonplace, but this seems to be the kind of accomplice some want as they negotiate the avenues and byways of the world, especially as you see them conduct themselves online. They always seem to have (like their idea of Edgar Allen Poe) “history on their side”. 

Or perhaps Gustafson’s Poe is a promise of what’s always to come. The price we’ll pay if we don’t, collectively, pay enough attention and listen to heralds of change. Perhaps this aggressive Poe of the artist’s diurnal imagining reflects fear, some dream of a dystopian future where a knock on the door can lead to unimaginable torment. Perhaps if they remain unacknowledged in the present, such legislators might in the future turn nasty, become uncontrollable, even have impulses of their own that, if they give in to them, may make them as bad as those they criticised when they were living in their garrets. 

Even with the distortions posterity confers upon his or her image, an artist can remain remarkably inviolate in his or her works. Conditional, of course, on our reading or viewing the work, though a reading made in the 21st century is not the same as a reading of the same work made in the 19th century. If it were the same, no talented artist would ever be poor.

But at least if money’s the only thing you need to be accepted, then you can use whatever talents you naturally possess to get it. Under such a regime at least your thoughts won’t require approval to be licit, though they may be worth less than someone else’s. 

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