Art Outside the Artist

Does art take on a life of its own once it leaves the artist? Does art ever leave the artist, in fact, or is there always a membrane connecting the creator with the creation?

Considering the baggage that some artists carry with them into to their work, it's hard to deny there's always a connection between the two. Prominent painters, musicians, and authors are often considered inseparable from their work, even as they insist that the work should be judged on its own merits. Is is even possible to separate the two?

Our popular culture has a hard time separating artists' personal lives with their respective songs, paintings and novels. We have such a hard time with this separation because of our fascination with celebrity. Celebrity culture is all about marketing notoriety as product, so if a popular artist's work is recognized by enough people, we began to, in our quest for understanding what it takes to become recognized in our society, pick apart the lives of those artists for clues to their success.

Once we find those clues, we either use them to vindicate ourselves and tear down the celebrities and artists we ourselves once hoisted onto pedestals, or we use those clues to strengthen and inform the myths behind the works they create. The artist's personal baggage can be employed to either destroy or justify the existence of their creation, and our society is fickle enough to be positively unpredictable in how it will respond.

Being a noted artist changes everything. If you take your art seriously, and you suddenly have a million eyes on what you do, you have a choice to make. You must either throw your creation into the public square and walk away, or you can choose to defend your work against misinterpretation. Or, you can merely pick and choose your battles.

Institutional painters like Thomas Kincaide depend heavily on teams of trained students to churn out product in a particular style. Major label studios employ teams of 'songwriting' gurus who meet at seminar to craft the perfect pop song. Musicians bring in session artists or producers who are known for lending a particular sound 'brand' to the product. Writers depend heavily on input from editors and publishing house exectives to 'tweak' the content of their books. Either way, when it comes to pop art, there is always much more going on than just the artist and the creative process. Despite this, our celebrity-obsessed culture often draws no distinction between the artist and the song painting, movie, or novel.

It seems strange for me to even enter into a discussion about the ramifications of pop art without mentioning its Godfather. I think he wouldn't care either way. He was a master at not only exploiting existing cultural trends, but at taking advantage of celebrity obsession and society's obsession with being famous.

Consider, too, that not all art is pop art. Some has a small audience. Some never gets appraised by popular culture. None of that matters, though, when it comes to the artist's intrinsic connection with the art.

I try not to see painting and music and writing through the lens of commerce. I see it as deeply personal. I do this because I have an artistic temperament which I project onto the art I consume.

It's uncouth of me to name names, but I've encountered artists who I witness acting like colossal dicks to their fans. I've read interviews where actors, or musicians, or whoever, make statements that I find so abhorrent that their work begins taking on a different meaning. Yes, I lack context. No, I don't know how celebrity changes the way one acts in public. No, I don't know what side of the bed that person woke up on that day. But all the same, celebrity culture is unfair. Not all of you are like me, in fact I'd wager most of you are not, but I can't help but see the work differently after that. Witness what happened to the Dixie Chicks when they made an offhand insult about former President Bush.

If I read your novel, or stare at your painting, or listen to your song twenty times, I'm already projecting selfish, contextual baggage onto your work. That's arguably the purpose of art. But if I see your life, or your attitude, as linked to what you create, and something you do or say shits all over my idea of what your work is about, then you, the artist, can't win. Something grand can become something meaningless and banal. That sucks for you and for me.

Sometimes a popular song with confounding lyrical content is looked on as a treasure lifted from the complex inner life of the band. But then, in a Rolling Stone interview, the band may confess the song was about scoring weed, or getting kicked off a plane - you know, Rock Star cliches. And you realize that all that profundity in the song had nothing to do with the band but was in fact from your projection. Does that make it less real?

Another example. Say you read a book. It's dense layered, and complex. You finish it feeling that it had so much to say and spoke to you. Then, you find out the novel is considered by the author to be a representation of some pretty awful worldviews. Moments in the book you felt meant one thing suddenly get turned around on you. You feel betrayed. So again, I ask - does that make it less real? The same rules apply to visual works.

We project multiple layers of meaning onto art, particularly more impenetrable forms of art. The artist's actual process is almost worthless, because selling the art, or assigning meaning to it, requires constructing a narrative around how the piece was created. For some, that enhances the value and the meaning of the work. The reality behind how art is created is often much more mundane than many realize. It's work. For me, it is work - fulfilling work - but work. It can be plodding more often than not, often rooted in the everyday, inspired by the mundane, and often hiding some very ugly truths. It's not often a transcendent vision lifted straight from a dream like in movies.

Usually when I express difficulty in appreciating art if the artist has pissed me off, people tell me to lighten up. What you discover that a song you really like is actually a homophobic rant in disguise? Or, a really catchy tune that you've made into your ringtone is actually a song condoning rape? Or, a novel you adored is actually a metaphor for a deeply racist agenda? I use these extreme examples to hammer home a point. Isn't it possible that sometimes, the real meaning does matter? Or, even in these cases, is is possible that the consumer of art has the option to surgically excise the work entirely from its creator and make it their own?


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