Artists are embedded in society. If we think about how artists have historically viewed themselves as functioning in their society and how they’ve positioned themselves in society, we see many different models. Let’s consider a dozen of these models. As we proceed, think through to what extent one or another of these roles might be a match for you.
In each case I’ll use as an example a painter whose subject matter is flowers, to give you a sense of how artists who opt for similar subject matter may nevertheless be maintaining a completely different relationship with society.
First, we have the classical artist. The classical artist aimed for technical excellence and formal beauty. Here is how a classical artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “My art speaks to universals. I intend to paint beautiful flowers irrespective of what is going on in society. Maybe my beautiful flowers will heal people who are harmed, maybe my flowers will bring a smile to the faces of people who are sad, but such outcomes are just happy unintended consequences of what I do. I am not looking for any outcomes in society—I am simply doing the art that speaks to me and to my sense of what is unchanging, eternal, and universal.”
Second, we have the medieval artist. The medieval artist aimed for a certain kind of anonymity and service. Here is how a medieval artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “One of the subjects that my guild employs to praise God and one of the subjects we use to decorate holy sites is the flower. Therefore I have apprenticed in the art of flower painting to a master flower painter and I am humbly and rigorously learning my craft. When I learn it I will become one of many who serve by painting flowers.”
Third, we have the renaissance artist. The renaissance artist wanted his individual name known and sported an individual ego and individual ambitions. Here is how a renaissance artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “My flowers are special and, frankly, a work of real genius. They may praise God and all of that but it’s important to me that people know my name and recognize my uniqueness and my greatness.”
Fourth, we have the court artist. The court artist resided inside society’s most powerful inner circle and was beholden to and a plaything of the powerful. Here is how a court artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “The Queen is attracted to lilies but the King hates them. So although I am painting my next painting for the Queen I nevertheless must finesse her out of her desire for lilies and sell her on something that won’t upset the King. But I better not upset her either!—because she too can lop off my head!”
Fifth, we have the society artist. The society artist played a similar game to the court artist, only inside the world of the wealthy and the privileged instead of the regal. Here is how a society artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “I can’t wait for the Smiths to see my new chrysanthemum painting that the Jones’ just put up! With luck, I can spend all summer at the Smiths’ place on the Island painting them a chrysanthemum or two.”
Sixth, we have the revolutionary artist. The revolutionary artist stood as a witness to her society and adopted the stance of activist. Here is how a revolutionary artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “I am going to paint a series of flower paintings where each flower is a martyr executed by our fascistic government. By using flowers as my motif I’ll be able to speak to the bourgeoisie, who would never listen if I painted firing squads like Goya. My flowers will help foment the coming revolution!”
Seventh, we have the bohemian artist. The bohemian artist thumbed her nose at society and burned her candle at both ends. Here is how a bohemian artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “Having been high for nine days now, I have some truly amazing flowers popping out of the psychedelic haze that is my life. As soon as I finish this Scotch and stumble my way to the canvas I will express with great poetry and passion these flowers that are crawling under my skin.”
Eighth, we have the modern artist. The modern artist aimed for progress and innovation. Here is how a modern artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “Most people will not understand what I’m doing when I turn the common red rose into a blue abstraction, but artists will understand, some segments of society will eventually understand, and in the process I will have moved art forward from its sad past as decoration and a plaything of the rich.”
Ninth, we have the contemporary global artist. The contemporary global artist can position herself broadly, “worldwide” so to speak, rather than narrowly, and pick her society and move among societies. Here is how a contemporary global artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “I have been painting here in Hong Kong for five years now but my large-scale flower paintings do not fit the cultural norms or aesthetic idiom I find here in Hong Kong. So I am picking up and moving to Florence, where my flowers will strike a chord with a society brought up on and surrounded by Renaissance floral painting.”
Tenth, we have the mass-market artist. The mass-market artist is interested in large-scale success and in reaching the most people possible, whether in a hit television show, with a hit book, with a hit CD, and so on. Here is how a mass-market artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “I’m going to finesse my way onto that new reality show where twenty people live together in a glass house and do my darnedest to become the villain on that show, since becoming the fan favorite isn’t in my nature. By the end of that series the whole world will be wanting my flower paintings—which I’ll hire some people to paint while I’m toiling away in that glass house becoming a celebrity.”
Eleventh, we have the small business artist or merchant artist. The small business artist is functionally like any shopkeeper on any village street, hand-selling her poetry chapbooks, scented candles, homemade CDs, watercolors, or other merchandise—nowadays in cyberspace as well as in brick-and-mortar outlets. Here is how a small business artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “I’m going to paint the idiosyncratic flowers I want to paint, put up an attractive website, and market to those members of society who might take an interest in what I paint. I’m going to create my cyberspace presence and see who comes along to shop.”
Twelfth and last, we have the contemporary postmodern artist. The contemporary postmodern artist is awash in competing choices, competing roles, competing metaphors, and competing narratives. Here is how a contemporary postmodern artist might speak to herself about her relationship to society in the context of painting flowers: “This month I’m doing installation flowers that speak to my sense of isolation and alienation from society, but at the same time I want to do a coffee table book of flower paintings that is partly ironic and also just simply beautiful, and at the same time I want to deconstruct the flower and move it way past what Mondrian ever did.”
In one form or another all of these roles are still available to today’s artist. There is a way to be a classical artist, a way to be a medieval artist, a way to be a society artist, and so on. Most artists will probably find themselves falling into one or another of the last two categories—that is, most will become small business artists who try to hand-sell to those segments of society that appreciate them or will become postmodern artists whose relationship to society changes frequently and even abruptly. But while most artists will probably find themselves in one or another of the last two categories, it’s important to remember that all of these categories continue to exist in their own way and that it will pay you enormous dividends to think through what relationship you want to fashion with your culture and your society.
Next week we’ll continue this discussion!
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