On the vocation of an artist: Part I
Before reading this post, if you wish, go ahead and fill out the following sentence: "The vocation of an artist is...." Keep your answer in mind as you read this first of several entries exploring the vocation of an artist.
For an artist to choose to enter seriously into her calling is to enter into a very confused world. In the world at large, beyond the walls of Christendom, one encounters a babel of opinions.
The auteur filmmaker David Cronenberg, author of cult favorites such as The Fly and Videodrome as well as the mesmerizing one-two punch of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, offers this off-the-cuff resume for his vocation: "At the time you’re being an artist, you’re not a citizen. You have, in fact, no social responsibility whatsoever." This echoes at some level, even if hyperbolically, the advice that Jacob Khan gives the young Asher Lev, in My Name is Asher Lev:
“Listen to me, Asher Lev. As an artist you are responsible to no one and to nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it. Do you understand? An artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda. Anything else is what the Communists in Russia call art. I will teach you responsibility to art. Let your Ladover Hasidism teach you responsibility to Jews. Do you understand?”
While this novel is on my all-time top ten novel list, I'm afraid that I cannot agree with the counsel given, though I'm acutely aware of the kinds of reasons that motivate the character (and perhaps Potok too) for giving it.
Adam Gopnik, in an article for The New Yorker, hints at the kind of calling that many artists in the contemporary art scene perceive for themselves when he writes, “Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art.” It is art, that is, that nearly exclusively disregards the needs of the audience in favor of the artist’s needs. While this of course does not describe all contemporary artists, it does describe enough of them to warrant a measure of concern or at least a reassessment of what is at stake in society’s experience of such art—as well as society’s responsibility to the artist.
The British Post Punk rocker Philip “John” Brennan spews—well, yes, because that’s usually what punk rockers do—this opinion (circa early 1980s):
“It’s self-explanatory, isn’t it? Rock’n’roll, by definition, is against Thatcherism. And if it isn’t, it’s not rock’n’roll. . . . I’d say rock’n’roll should always be anti-establishment—whatever the establishment is.”
It's the distinction between wanting two spheres either separated or differentiated. Where Lambert and company want the former, O'Connor and saner heads plea for the latter, often, and rightly so, against the naive wishes of fellow Christians. Where O'Connor envisions a symbiotic relationship between artists and pastors, or the community of artists and the church, Lambert lacks an equivalent social institution to partner with on behalf of the good of society.
Lady Gaga, the sartorially hyper-imaginative alter ego of Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, continuing the theme of separable spheres, perceives her task as an artist this way:
“We are nothing without our image. Without our projection. Without the spiritual hologram of who we percieve ourselves to be or rather to become, in the future. When you are lonely, I will be lonely too. And this is the fame.”
This is said by the woman who, at last count, has amounted 52,049,063 “friends” on Facebook. While taking her comments with a large pinch of poetic salt, Lady Gaga epitomizes the artistic practice of generating two versions of oneself: the person and the persona. At a relatively benign level, this has included the historical habit of picking a pseudonym for public representation. Samuel Clemens chose Mark Twain. Mary Anne Evans adopted the pen name George Eliot. Robert Matthew van Winkle took the infamous nickname Vanilla Ice, while Paul David Hewson sounds much cooler as Bono than, well, Paul David Hewson. At a more hazardous level, artists like Lady Gaga lose the capacity to be their "regular" selves in public and resort to elaborate and often expensive means to hide behind the public image. It begs the question: What does it mean for an artist to be at home with herself and with others?
Finally, David Morgan, professor of religion at Duke, describes one branch of contemporary philosophical aesthetics in strong language, when he states (rather than spews) that, for this party, the arts are “ideological constructs that serve the privileged in human society. Beauty, ugliness, truth, value, authority—all are constructed by the class, race, gender, or state that seeks to enforce its dominance.” True in some cases, perhaps not in all cases, and perhaps not as simply as that. But still, it is worth a friendly reminder, especially when we recall the attitudes of Madison Avenue and of 18th century missionaries to Africa who brusquely imposed organs and hymnals upon people groups whose musical forms were regarded as liturgically “lesser,” if not perverse.
I could go on. But you get the point.
When you enter into discussion with fellow Christians, the situation unfortunately isn’t much better...especially when we encounter the all-too-ready appeal to the notion of artist as prophet (per our nifty representation above).