Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Death of the Artist?

The Atlantic has a think-piece on the "Death of the Artist" that might be worth reading:
 the notion of the artist as a solitary genius—so potent a cultural force, so determinative, still, of the way we think of creativity in general—is decades out of date. So out of date, in fact, that the model that replaced it is itself already out of date. A new paradigm is emerging, and has been since about the turn of the millennium, one that’s in the process of reshaping what artists are: how they work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves and are thought of—even what art is—just as the solitary-genius model did two centuries ago. The new paradigm may finally destroy the very notion of “art” as such—that sacred spiritual substance—which the older one created.
Before we thought of artists as geniuses, we thought of them as artisans. The words, by no coincidence, are virtually the same. Art itself derives from a root that means to “join” or “fit together”—that is, to make or craft, a sense that survives in phrases like the art of cooking and words like artful, in the sense of “crafty.” We may think of Bach as a genius, but he thought of himself as an artisan, a maker. Shakespeare wasn’t an artist, he was a poet, a denotation that is rooted in another word for make. He was also a playwright, a term worth pausing over. A playwright isn’t someone who writes plays; he is someone who fashions them, like a wheelwright or shipwright.
The paradigm that is being replaced is the Romantic one, of course. But what the writer seems to miss--what they all seem to miss--is that there was Great Art before the Romantic era and there was and will be Great Art after the Romantic era. The Romantic concept of the artist and art is not the only one. Bach, after his death, became to be thought of as a genius and was enshrined as such by the Romantic composers Mendelssohn and others. But he was a genius AND an artisan and the fact that he predated Romanticism does not make him less so.

Other great composers who preceded the Romantic era include Josquin, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Couperin, Rameau, Machaut and a host of others. You can call them "artisans" if you want, but if that implies that the quality of their music is aesthetically inferior to that of Romantic composers, you are simply mistaken. I really think the writer of the article, William Deresiewicz, is creating a false dichotomy between "genius" and artisanship.

There are some grains of truth here: the idea of the "fine arts" as something inherently superior to all works of artisans does seem to have been a conception dating from the middle to late 18th century, but I suspect that it was mere recognition of something that had been true for a long time. The great art of the architecture of the Medieval cathedrals (or of the organum of Leonin and Perotin) is not less simply because architecture and polyphony were not initially given the categorization "fine art" by the philosophers.

Similarly, great art will not disappear just because we have a generation or two of entrepreneurial musicians driven mostly by the bottom line. The writer does make some good points, however:
Artisan, genius, professional: underlying all these models is the market. In blunter terms, they’re all about the way that you get paid. If the artisanal paradigm predates the emergence of modern capitalism—the age of the artisan was the age of the patron, with the artist as, essentially, a sort of feudal dependent—the paradigms of genius and professional were stages in the effort to adjust to it.
Here is how he characterizes the new model:
Creative entrepreneurship, to start with what is most apparent, is far more interactive, at least in terms of how we understand the word today, than the model of the artist-as-genius, turning his back on the world, and even than the model of the artist as professional, operating within a relatively small and stable set of relationships. The operative concept today is the network, along with the verb that goes with it, networking.
His conclusion is not bad:
When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.
There is certainly something to this analysis. However, people who are successfully selling their creative products to others need to distinguish them in some ways. If sheer aesthetic quality is not as important as it used to be, then what is the means? In music, there are production values. Anyone can, with a very modest investment, set up their own home recording studio and digital audio workstation. With a bit of creativity, you can turn out some pretty good product. But notice how this will not be enough. All the name musician/artists are doing things that you can't do at home. They are crafting elaborate video productions to go with their fairly humdrum musical creations, something the ordinary musician can't match.

But back to the artist and the death thereof. I still believe that there is no time, not even our own, that is truly without great music. It may be a bit overshadowed by empty pop confections, but it still exists and the people with ears to hear are still listening to it. I don't just mean the established canon of classical music either: there is both great "popular" music and great composers working within the classical realm. I'm sure all my readers know the usual examples I would choose, so why don't you offer ones of your own? Here, let me get you started:

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