The art that is important to a population has always been a reflection of what is important to that society. In ancient art people glorified the hunt, the feminine creation mystery and their gods. Then art glorified rulers as well. And then it added mythological heroes.
If we trace the history of Western Art, we get classical society which made art about gods and physical ideals. In the Renaissance the art continued to glorify the Judeo Christian God, rulers and added the heroism of history; the societies of ancient Rome and Greece. Art marched on and added nature to its list of subjects. Then the common man, and everyday scenes like railway stations. Each addition of a new subject draws controversy. But art marches on. Next aesthetics become a hero. In the modern era, color, shape, form and space are king.
Finally we get to the second half of the twentieth century, where celebrity is the big dog. The obvious development is pop art where artists paint the heroes of the day: movie stars and rock stars. But around this time something else starts happening: the artists become the heroes. Perhaps this started earlier with the rebellious schools of art like the Impressionists, Fauves and Cubists. But “who painted it” is as important as the painting itself.
But how does the artist become the hero? We have to look at what a hero is first. A hero is someone who leaves the life expected of them to achieve great things. To illustrate this concept, I’ll take a look at the two pop music archetypes of the nineties: the hip hop performer and the grunge rocker. The hip hop performer in the nineties focused on rising up from poverty to attain wealth while the grunge rocker focused on rejecting life in the suburbs for…I don’t know…some kind of imagined moral superiority. These two narratives gave musicians legitimacy in that decade.
Fine artists can gain art world legitimacy through narrative of their own. It can be as simple as the myth of the artist living a rock and roll life style. I overheard a local muralist talking about how his clients seem disappointed when he tells them he is spending his evening watching Netflix with his girlfriend. They expect him to be out all night in some tortured hedonistic haze. Or it can come from making art in a controlling state like China. Ai Weiwei is much better known outside the art world for being arrested than for his artwork.
A few years ago I watched the Bravo series “Work of Art” and noted that the contestants on that show were constantly pushed to be personal with their artwork. This often resulted in self indulgent nonsense. But just the fact that the series showcases artists to the public as self aggrandizers alienates the public. The posturing of artist as hero is not in itself bad, but becoming obsessed with the self as subject limits the art world.
Then there is the narrative of artist as academic hero. An artist has given up everything to spend many years and dollars in school to get their MFA in Fine Art. Often, what they create is completely incomprehensible to the public without a written thesis. But this makes them admirable since what they created is so far over the heads of the general public, they are to be revered. This leaves most of the public completely alienated and makes others intimidated subjects of these academic art gods. People who really want to love art grant these giants instant legitimacy but really have no idea what they are looking at. This is incredibly destructive because it means that people who can’t afford schooling are eliminated from this canon. It gives academics ultimate control in steering the path of art and therefore creates homogenization.
Making the artist the hero in art is not a bad thing. It expands artistic possibilities and adds to the grand dialogue. But, we must be careful that it does not become the only hero. That would be just as boring as if we were only allowed to paint landscapes or politicians.