Celebrity artists

The editors of periodicals assume, probably correctly, that most of their readers are more interested in hearing about people than about works of art. This is often evident even in prestigious art journals. Thus it’s common now for so much attention to be given to those who ‘make it big’ in the art world that the artists eclipse their own creations.

How do people ‘make it big’ ? How do they stand out from the throng?

The throng from which an artist has to emerge now in order to be ‘big’ is itself vastly bigger than it has ever been, because the reach of our communications has increased so dramatically. Think of Rembrandt painting in Amsterdam and competing for commissions with his rivals there. Then take a look at a magazine like Artforum. In a recent issue of this periodical the Reviews section includes exhibitions currently showing in twenty-three cities widely spread around the planet.

How are artists to stand out from all this lot? The most astute seekers after fame soon conclude that it’s necessary to get media attention, and the easiest way to achieve that is to do something wild, unheard-of and, ideally, utterly shocking. So if you want to become a celebrity artist, your best plan is to do or to make something outrageous – and call the happening or the object ‘art’.  After all, you are the artist and if you call it art, then art it is. Didn’t Rauschenberg say so?

But what becomes of this ‘work of art’ , assuming that it’s not entirely ephemeral? Having served to help its creator to fame and wealth, what is its further role? More than likely it’s a weak thing on its own, given the motives that made it. So it has to survive by its celebrity connection. Here’s a well-known couplet by Alexander Pope that has lost none of its point over the centuries:

“I am His Highness’ dog at Kew.
Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?”

For a sharp contrast it’s interesting to think of what Emily Dickinson had to say about celebrity:

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?”

And in the next verse:

“How dreary – to be –Somebody
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!”

Emily was a determined recluse. She was also a poetic genius. Her fame endures.

It’s not necessary – not even desirable – for every good artist to be reclusive. But it would be an excellent thing if artists, whatever their lifestyle, were judged by the quality of the art they give us. The quality of the art we have affects the quality of human life.

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