(This is a re-publishing of the content of my postings in a discussion started by Ron Croci on Linkedin under the same title as here above.)
The term "artist" in visual art has been in use for only a relatively short time. Before the Renaissance the "picture makers" were considered being craftsmen of very low social standing put in charge of illustrating the story of the Christian creed.
But remember that was the story of Europe... Out of Europe the situation was different.
- Primitive societies, otherwise called tribal societies, had no notion of there being artists or any other specialists, for, tribesmen had no notion of individualism. They considered themselves as atoms receiving from their group the substance of their ideas and beliefs. What we today call "primitive arts" was in fact no more than what anyone in a tribe did on a daily base to assure the subsistence of the group. Tribesmen shared a common worldview and they thus all naturally illustrated the elements of their worldview in their functional productions: ceramic pots and pans, jewelry, textiles, totems, drawings in the sand, or dirt, or on rocks, and so on.
- in traditional China (before the 20th century) there was no idea of there being artists. The study program of the "mandarins" (intellectuals) comprised the Confucian books + music and the use of the brush (writing characters and painting). There were 2 forms of painting: Gongbi and Xieyi. Gongbi illustrates peoples' daily lives in minutia detail and acts thus like a repository of the history of the nation while Xieji is the spontaneous illustration of the Tao of things and acts thus like a Chinese visual philosophic narrative. It goes without saying that the mandarins were adept at Xieyi while Gongbi was more the specialty of craftsmen (mandarin or not).
In light of this; a valid answer to the question starting this discussion "Can anyone actually define what a "True Artist" is?" has to focus on the transformation during the European Renaissance of the traditional "picture makers" into "artists".
We have indeed to understand why traditional "picture makers" of very low social standing who were in charge of illustrating the story of the Christian creed suddenly were transformed into "artists" earning lots of money, for, it is the relatively important amounts of money they now earned which bestowed on the artists this "je ne sais quoi" of mythical proportions that rendered them so special in the eyes of all the other citizens of early modern societies.
The plundering of Middle-Eastern "richesses" during the crusades resulted in luxuries finding their way to a very "crude" Europe. Once familiarized with carpets, tapestries, mirrors, fine ceramics, silk textiles and other niceties the aristocracy and early merchants wanted more of those and thus developed a long distance trade in Luxuries between the Middle East and Europe. Such long distance trade resulted in the rise of "new rich" merchants who spent their newly acquired fortunes building mansions and doing all they could to differentiate themselves from the other citizens.
Till then "image makers" had been living in poverty, as second class citizens, illustrating the creed of the church. The visual rendering of the creed were imposed upon the populations as being sacred. It was and remains indeed a sacrilege to desecrate a religious artwork. A sacrilege is the act of taking anything sacred for secular use. So the illustration of the creed (what we call religious art today) was thus infused with the authority of the church that manifested itself, lets never forget this, through the authority of its physical power to burn and kill whoever did not follow or obey its intellectual power and its foundational story. Such a totalitarian reality has been impressed in the brains of Europeans for centuries (4th to 19th century). It's in this particular context that art has acquired for Westerners its character of sacred absolutism. The visual illustration of the worldview of the moment (Christianity) gained the respect of all for fear to be burned alive!
Let's imagine, for a second, what a prestige the "new rich" were thinking they would acquire from owning such visual illustrations to decorate the walls of their mansions.
The visual illustrations that would enter the palaces, the mansions and villas would undoubtedly be dressed in power clothes. But to motivate the "image makers" to realize illustrations destined to adorn their walls the "new rich" would have to vanquish the fear in the heads of those "image makers" of retribution by the church and the price for vanquishing that fear has been very high financial retributions. And so was born the "artist" a guy realizing "visual illustrations" that had gained a character of sacred absolutism gained through the physical power of the church to burn those who committed a sacrilege.
Once "image makers" were financially convinced to work for the "new rich" they were asked to realize illustrations of the newly emerging values of those same "new rich: individualism and private property; thus the appearance of 3 new subjects to be illustrated:
- portraits of those living in the mansions,
- landscapes around the mansions
- stills on the tables in the mansions.
Those 3 new subjects became thus the exclusive affair of all visual illustrations for the next 4 to 5 centuries.
The emergence in the end of the 18th and in the 19th century of:
- rationality with the philosophers,
- science with the early entrepreneurs that started mass productions,
- new technologies such as trains and long distance communication that bruised the picture of reality in the minds of those using them,
- social scientists who started questioning the hegemony of the bourgeoisie,
all that led painters to start questioning the 3 imposed subjects to be illustrated.
The high point of this questioning came around 1900 (high modernity) at the hands of the "avant-garde". The artists' thinking about art was that their productions had to illustrate "reality" but they felt that the 3 imposed subjects had nothing to do with the "truth about reality" that they suspected existed out there and Duchamp was without any doubt the most active searcher of that "truth about reality". He terminated his cubist search declaring that it was no more than a painting trick. He left futurism saying that it was no more than an impressionism of movement. Finally when his "toilet ready-made" provocation had been recuperated by critics and collectors alike he felt that art made no longer any sense for him and immersed himself in table play. Note that in the fifties he was claiming that he was tired of being called an artist, for, he felt that it meant "being dumb as a painter".
We have to recognize today, in late modernity, that the questioning of the avant-garde did not find any valid answers. And in our age of "financialization and speculation" on absolutely everything the nature of art has been lost to almost everyone.
Art today is being presented as:
- whatever the "artist" says is art.
- Pollock pretended that it was the expression of his feelings and that it had no meaning out of the splashing of his feelings (colors) on the canvas.
- Fang Lijun likes to compare his artwork to excretion. "Artwork is actually the urination of the sick [artist]. As long as he gets enough water, he will urinate at times. That's how the artworks come out," Fang writes. And his paintings sell for million of US dollars... to the new Chinese dollar millionaires.
- some believe that art is expression of beauty and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What a bullshit is that?
- others still believe that art is in the content (the narrative) of what appears on the canvas.
I personally observe that what we call art today (from primitive to religious to modern) has been practiced along tens of thousands of years all around the world:
- for tens of thousands of years in tribal societies art was the illustration of the tribal worldview also called animism.
- for a short few thousands of years in religious societies art was the illustration of the worldview of the church.
- in early modernity (roughly 1400-1500 to 1900) art was the illustration of the worldview of capital holders and thus the 3 imposed subjects.
- in high modernity (roughly 1900 to WW2) art was a search for the "truth about reality" but that search for a modern worldview ended in tears.
- in late modernity, roughly 1950 to 2000, art has become a product of speculation and artists are, or lost in their subjectivity, or cynically cashing in on whatever sells.
- today I sense that something is slowly emerging that could very well be the answer to the search of the avant-garde. And I believe that in the production of what is emerging lays the answer to the initial question of this discussion.
What is emerging?
- the search for absolutely objective beauty in the rendering form of an artwork. (Ha... Man, that needs technique!)
- the search for the big trends that will shape the future worldview of humanity. (in this sense the artist needs to acquire a solid body of knowledge about reality.
So, in my eyes, the true artist is someone who:
- masters the technique in which he expresses himself in order to avoid getting burdened by technical aspects in the rendering of what he wishes to express (it's a question of pragmatism in order to avoid technical limitations),
- masters a vast knowledge base in which he can fish the necessary elements to make his narrative a valid one that can resist the passing of time (The work of a true artist remains of interest to people long after his death. To make that possible the true artist must be able to surf on the waves of societal evolution for he is acting like a man of knowledge (shaman) of post-modernity.)
- possesses a strong passion for gaining knowledge about our global reality. (Absolute beauty is the outcome of 3 billion years of evolution of the principle of life on earth and if humanity is to survive the follies of modernity our future worldview will necessarily have to reflect that objective beauty.)
- possesses the energy and the guts to go his way out of the security procured by the flock... The true artist is no sheep indeed. Sorry for having taken so much space. I'm definitely not a Twitter type guy.