Monday, July 07, 2008

My Art Advice: Why do so many people view artists in a negative manner?

I did not really want to go into this issue. However, several people have sent similar questions to me... so I guess writing about it is 'now or never'. This is a question that has a number of answers and I do hope that you will all give your thoughts on the issue. One could say that the popular image of artist as 'rogue' or 'anti-hero' can be traced back generations-- the issue can actually be complex in its simplicity. However, I will focus on more recent times and how movies have shaped this 'image' in contemporary culture. In my opinion, movie depictions of artists can be credited for enforcing the negative stereotypes that some people have about artists in general.

It is no secret that movies about fictional artists often portray the characters as drug fiends hampered by emotional instability and fueled by lust. Even when a film is about a historical artist it seems that individuals with the most volatile or disrupted personalities are selected. Picasso, Modigliani, Pollock, Van Gogh, Goya, Warhol are the usual suspects as far as these movies are concerned and they are often the base for fictional artists in movies as well. Think of an artist who endured some form of strife in his or her life due to addictions, mental disorders, lifestyle, or a combination of the three and most likely there is-- or will be-- a movie about that artist if he or she has had any success with his or her art. In other words, negativity sells and in this case it can feed our collective 'image' of what it means to be an artist.

These artists and their traits are selected because each had specific flaws that are embraced by our inherent need to observe negative situations, places, and themes-- a need that is often enforced by the media. In other words, their lives-- and fictional characters structured from their lives-- are marketable as a plot due to their struggle and our desire to observe said struggle. The challenges-- both inward and outward-- that they faced invoke our curiosity... kind of like how people tend to take a few extra glances as they drive by a burning house or vehicle accident. Just look at the negative stories that dominate newspapers and news channels and you will find proof of how marketable negativity is. Positive aspects of life are often considered boring by media standards... and 'boring' does not earn big ratings.

Thus, the issue of how the 'image' of the artist has been shaped negatively is actually an issue involving how we view the world as a whole based on what we are subjected to viewing and our natural curiosity for destruction. That said, the problem with movies like Lust for Life, Surviving Picasso, and Modigliani is that they rarely reveal the brilliance of the artist at work. They may offer scenes that depict the artist in his or her studio, but they tend to favor personal drama-- specifically self-destruction or the destruction of others by the hand of the artist-- over artistic creation. These films often remind me of watered down soap operas with a few brushes thrown in for good measure. The art, which is what made the individual famous and 'movie worthy' in the first place, is often excluded throughout most of these films.

Viewers end up learning very little about the artist or his or her art from watching these movies because focus is often placed on a single aspect of the artists life-- drinking problems, sexual addictions and abuse, self-harm and so on-- not to mention the fact that these movies are often historically flawed in the first place. Someone with little knowledge about art or the artist in question may end up associating the creative strength of that specific artist with the addictions and flaws that said artist lived with. At that point the viewer may think that an artist-- every artist- must rely on addictions or endure great strife simply to create. Need proof... ask a dozen people about Van Gogh and I bet you that more than half of them will mention something about his ear before saying anything about his paintings or technique. Due to these stereotypes being enforced people sometimes forget that a work of art is created by a person... not by sex, drugs, and empty bottles.

Picasso was not just a self-centered womanizer. Van Gogh's greatest achievement was not self-harm. Modigliani liked his drink, but that was not the only focus in his life. These artists are known-- or should be known --because of the art they created... not their personal lives. Their personalities and lifestyle simply add an extra spark of interest in what they left behind-- I don't think it should be the focus. Unfortunately, movies often focus on these specific traits/events as far as these artists are concerned and as far as fictional portrayals of artists are concerned. Even more unfortunate is the fact that some people view these movies and form opinions about every artist based on what they have observed. Even worse, some artists emulate what they have observed to some degree in the hopes that they can be 'famous' as well. Personality-- both the negative and positive aspects of personality-- can have an influence on how popular or accepted an artist is, but in the end the art should be the focus because the art is the reason for remembering. People need to think about what an artist has to offer-- or has offered-- to society due to their art instead of what he or she did in the bar or bedroom.

One can find these artist stereotypes on television as well. For example, if you turn on HBO tonight you may stumble upon a documentary about the artist Chuck Connelly titled, The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale. Insiders who have viewed this documentary have stated that it is one-sided as to how the artworld functions and that it, like the movies I mentioned, focuses on specific negative aspects of Connelly's life while leaving questions about him unanswered. So, to answer your question directly... people often view artists negatively because of the negative 'image' that movies, television shows, and other aspects of the media have created by focusing on traits and personality flaws that fuel artist stereotypes. So if you are an artist watching a movie like Surviving Picasso just remember to survive the stereotypes.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin


Ebriel said...

"Artist films" are often made with a two-fold goal: A - to make the artist more accessible to the general public by "humanizing" them, and B - to knock the artist off the perceived pedestal where "successful" artists have been placed by museums, gallerists, and collectors.

The average person sees pieces of canvas with paint splodged on them being sold for tens of thousands/millions of dollars. It's unbelievable, really, when you think about it, the inflated monetary value that's put on art.

This leads to a natural human desire to deflate the artists mystique. Cliches like "My kid could paint that" and the films you mentioned are an easy way to do that.

Anonymous said...

very nice article mr. artspace!It's the first time that I read one of your blogs, and I'm realy excited.But I'd like to remind you something. It's not only the movies to blame, but mostly the audiaunce and the less education they (we) get in general and especially about art.So noone is going to see a movie about an artist if there's no drama!..unfortunatly
Keep on doing this nice work.Thank you
P.S.sorry about my English,I'm Greek and I don't use it that often ,especially by writing.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to separate the art from the artist. We admire certain artists because of their work; their personal lives, whether sordid or saintly, are simply irrelevant.

Van Gogh was a rude drunk with bad personal hygiene. Gauguin was a bully who abandoned his wife and kids after infecting them all with syphilis. Caravaggio was a drunken, violent madman who committed murder. Rothko was a chronic alcoholic who died a suicide... The list of great artists who were not particularly enlightened as human beings is, arguably, a long one.

But who cares? They're dead now. It's the art that lives on, not the artist.

Azo Dye said...

On a psychological level, humans tend to belittle, put down, or make fun of that which they do not understand. By doing this they attempt to feel superior, rather than inferior. The negative views by people are definitely from miseducation in media, but also a basic lack of understanding in themselves about what is art.

Until the artist is removed from the canvas, and the canvas is removed from the price tag, and the price tag removed from the movies...this trend will continue.

ZD said...

I just wrote an essay about this for school, but I didn't even mention how artists are portrayed in the media. I wrote about how art is taught in elementary school. In elementary school you are only taught about artists who are long dead. If you are taught anything about the life of any artists in public school, you’re only taught about the ones who were poor and/or insane. Nobody can name socially well-adjusted artists like Raphael. Everyone knows Hitler was an artist, but few people know that Winston Churchill was also an artist.

Sometimes you will get an assignment that involves designing a logo, but you aren't taught about any modern "commercial" artists. The lesson kids learn from this is that art is a thing of the past, and it’s not anything they are interested in. Kids are interested in things like movies and comic books, but those aren’t going to be a part of art class, because people who make movies have too much money I guess. Most people never question any of the things they learn in public education, so they continue to associate art with suffering for their entire lives.

Balhatain said...

ZD, you make a good point about our school system. That is actually one reason why I backed out of being a public school art teacher. Even the text books tend to focus on negative aspects of personality instead of the art itself. Young students rarely learn about why a specific artist is important-- the lesson plans simply do not call for it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for this insightful blog Brian.

I have to wonder a little bit here about how much personality and lifestyle can be truly separated from an artists work. Wouldn't it be fair to say that such things as an artists mental health are a significant factor in the conceptual interpretation of the artists work?

I dont necessarily like that this is what all of these movies focus on, but the reality is that these aspects of their life affected their creative works in essential ways.

Of course it is odd that these are the only movies, ones that are about the disturbed artists. But "Crap" pointed out earlier the drama is what people are watching, not the art.

I think it is a very complicated subject and many things have been pointed out here that are very interesting. I just wanted to pose that question.

thanks again for everyones insight.

Anonymous said...

ZD and Balhatain mentioned education. It is by far the most important issue in art today. There has been separation of mainstream culture from artists because of a lack of art education. Balhatain, this is why it's so important for passionate artists and art-lovers to be teachers. Any kind of discussion about art is therapeutic to the art-apathy problem. My mom HATED art her whole life because of a bad experience with a horrible art teacher, but after learning about some artists and looking at art, she can definitely appreciate art more and actually be excited about it. Anyway, since there is little to no real art education in American public schools, society relies on the media to learn about the only art they have access to. It would be nice to see a movie about a living artist who didn't have a crazy personal life.

Anonymous said...

i value what you have to say but getting back to reality, movies are for people who watch movies. i'm sure any artist, if we had the chance, would be more than happy to watch a film of they fav artist (whoever) just paint, but if your not a artist then this could be quite boring because they do not see the technique or colour or space or that magic which our favourite artist capture. Adding to this i don't think that everyone has ill-will towards artists, really if they do are they opinions important?, will you stop producing? the answer is no, i believe artists need to produce, express & create. In my case i did not paint for a whole year( i thought it would help my input V output) and ended up getting quite mentally unbalanced.

Anonymous said...

well i dont know about the general view on artists today but i dont feel theey are portrait bad ..

They excentic level is just a bit higher to make their story interessing..artist way of living is view upon as alternative lifestyle..and i feel that a lot of artists are a bit of the norm in persona anways so it kinda makes sense to me.

All the great ones, legends call em what you may, all are portraited excentric, whatever genre:-) but in the end they are just regular people with regular problems or issues, called Life :-)

Balhatain said...

Movies are for people who like to watch movies, but they can also re-write history and confuse people who do not have a working knowledge of said history. They can also enforce social stigmas. And no, I'm not 'just blaming the movies'... this is just the angle that I'm taking.

I'm not exactly saying that movies about a visual artist should be just about watching the artist work. That would be very hard to accomplish because we may not know exactly how he or she did what he or she was able to do. I'm simply stating there should be more focus on the art and why the artist created his or her work in the first place... and why said work is of importance-- why are we watching a movie about this person in the first place, and so on.

Unfortunately, that info is often placed on the backburner (or is thrown in without tact)and is replaced by showcasing the artists addictions-- which rarely tell us anything about the person. It would be like attending a gallery opening and the only info available about the artist is a list of his or her addictions or a list of who he or she has slept with (I'm sure that has happened a few times though).

I don't sum a person up by how many empty bottles they leave or how many people they have had sex with. At the end of a movie about a famous artist the viewer should leave with an idea of who the artist was instead of saying/thinking "he was nothing but a drunk", and so on. That is my opinion.

As for mental illness... the psychology of an individual can be important in understanding the art that he or she created, but I would like to point out that a large portion of the population has some form of mental illness. It could be said that we are all a bit mentally ill in some way. People tend to behave very differently in private than the way they behave in public.

I don't think it is rational (or safe) to think that creative energy flows from such illness-- though it could influence it. There are studies that are both for and against the idea that mental illness plays a major role in artistic creation.

Anonymous said...

You talk only about the famous artist, but the everyday artist is also thought of as weird. Many artists have day jobs, so it's much more difficult to be an alcoholic or junkie! Though the perception lives on.

I think there's a mindset to being an artist that strikes other folks as odd. It's not just that we put our art first, above all else, but I think we look at the world differently. And that can seem appealing at first but many folks find the going off to create art, see art, talk about art a bit boring after awhile.

I always give new folks I'm dating the "art test". I've only had someone fail on a first date, usually it takes someone about 6 months to let me know they wish I'd stop the art thing.