Where Did the Cliché of the Suffering Artist Come From?
Here are a few clichés about writers and artists: they are guided by destiny to become who they are meant to be. They suffer because they are poor. They are inspired by nature. They are admirable and yet dangerous. They have great teachers but their greatness can’t be taught. They are independent thinkers. Diligence and labour only take them so far, since inspiration is the vital spark. They retain control over their work but they also surrender to it too. They love freely, believe passionately, and think without conventional boundaries. They are, above all, authentic individuals who cannot be pigeonholed by simple labels.
No matter how seductive this list may sound, it is worth noting that every one of the above descriptions is a stereotype that has existed for decades or centuries, and in some cases even for millennia.
Why is this picture of the artist/writer so seductive, and why has it lasted so long?
In a fascinating study made by two German scholars as long back as 1934, called Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz explored that ways in which the lives of artists have long been made to conform to certain templates. It is from these templates that our deeper sense of what an artist might be comes from.
Their study is based on the following assertion:
“From the moment when the artist made his appearance in historical records, certain stereotyped notions were linked with his work and his person — preconceptions that have never entirely lost their significance.”
Kris and Kurz were broad in their scope, including such motifs as the caricature of the child prodigy, the discovery of the artist’s talent by a chance encounter, and the notion of artistic destiny.
They enumerated these motifs in order to demonstrate the existence of what they call “fixed biographical themes.” The idea is that artistic biographies have a long history of fitting the story of artists’ life into fixed patterns, thus offering a mythologized version of the artist.
For instance, there is the motif of special endowment —when the artist is initially unrefined, lacking in diligence, degenerated, yet by virtue of their special talent succeeds in their vocation. Think of the way that the life of Vincent van Gogh is always told in the way it is.
Love, sex and suffering
And then there is the cliché of love and sexual desire as an impetus for creativity, the bedrock of the artist/model story. Kris and Kurz tell us:
“It is said that Praxiteles depicted Phryne as Venus; Hugo van der Goes place his mistress in the picture of the Encounter of David and Abigail, and Bronzino painted his beloved as Eve in the picture of Christ in limbo. […] Thus, in the eyes of the biographers, love is the impetus to artistic activity — love for the beloved.”
And of the stereotype of the poverty stricken genius who suffers for their art, the authors write:
“This concept of genius is by far the most common one and seems to be connected with the expectation of an ascetic way of life, which the religious fervor of the Middle Ages demanded of the hero of its beliefs and which in the Renaissance was transferred to those blessed with genius.”
So according to the authors, the myth of the suffering artist began in the Middle Ages and was connected to the idealised image of the ascetic way of life in Christianity – a figure like St Francis of Assisi for instance.
Does it matter if these stereotypes persist?
It might matter, if we wish to understand what an artist truly is. For instance, Kris and Kurz also warn of the enacted biography whereby a person “submits” in real life to the motifs they enumerate.
Moreover, the seductive quality of these motifs emanates from the picture of agency they present. The artist is exulted as a doer, a thinker and a seer, whose relationship with conventional society is strained precisely because of the exceptional gifts they possess.
Probably the most influential contributor to this image of the artist is the 16th century Florentine writer Giorgio Vasari, who wrote about the lives of a series of Italian artists, in which he stresses the importance of biography in understanding the story of art. From Giotto through to Raphael, and ultimately to Michelangelo, the writings of Vasari emphasise a type of lineage-of-greatness whose influence is passed on and innovated upon from generation to generation.
Critics argue that the art-as-biography approach serves to remove “art” from historical or textual analysis by representing it solely as the “expression” of the creative personality of the artist. To see the root-cause of a work of art as a response to some specific event in the artist’s life is to gloss over the reality of historical circumstance, of social privileges and restrictions.
I share this unease. If we want our artists to be credible, real people — people whom we ourselves may one day become — then they have to be free of proverbial clichés that echo seductively down the ages, but which may not present a genuine account of creative pursuit.
The myths go on, stubbornly filling our heads. The reader may be asking if my account here threatens the more attractive aspects of artistic ideals. Well, I suspect that the lives of real artists are far more varied and interesting than these motifs allow for. If you’ve ever read the letters of Vincent van Gogh, for instance, you’ll know there was a lot more to the Dutch artist than his oddball caricature would suggest.
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