October 10, 2015


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The Arts

Artistic mystique difficult to explain

Artists are tortured souls. They can be odd. If they are not actually starving, they can certainly suffer from a pervasive lack of funds. They are loners, non-conformists, flakes, charlatans.

Or are they?

Van Gogh's  Self-portrait with  Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print, January 1889.  'There's a whole Van Gogh  industry: books, films, songs,  merchandise,' arts and culture writer Alison Gillmor says.

Van Gogh's Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print, January 1889. 'There's a whole Van Gogh industry: books, films, songs, merchandise,' arts and culture writer Alison Gillmor says.

On Friday at the News Café, arts and culture writer Alison Gillmor will deconstruct the myth of the artistic temperament. Drawing from art history as well as pop culture, she will examine how and why we view artists the way we do.

Gillmor, who has written about art for the Winnipeg Free Press, Border Crossings Magazine, and CBC Manitoba's The Scene, is interested in the contradictory nature of how society sees artists, calling the viewpoint double-edged.

Says Gillmor, "On the one hand, we often want art to be pure, noble, elevated from everyday life. But then we also darkly suspect it's a sham, or a trick, or that it's too remote from everyday life."

Though we often bestow stereotypical labels upon those who work in specialized fields, we do so with affection and amusement. "The math geek," for example, or "the food snob." But artists have a particular way of getting under the skin, and cause a unique kind of ambivalence.

According to Gillmor, this is due to the way art history has shaped our perceptions. The Renaissance master Michelangelo was the first artist to sign his work, impelled as he was by a deep sense of responsibility toward his gifts and the belief that his talent was divinely inspired. As a result, artists were no longer seen as craftspeople working anonymously as members of a guild. The first individualist "modern" art superstar was born.

Though Van Gogh never achieved the same kind of Lord-like status during his lifetime, his tumultuous life and tragic death embody many of our culture's myths about the artist -- madman, pauper, martyr. And, says Gillmor, "Once a mythology really gets underway, it gets bigger and bigger. There's a whole Van Gogh industry: books, films, songs, merchandise."

We no longer believe artists are superhuman. But art history lives on in the way we confer upon artists a special status, seeing their ability to draw or paint as nearly magical. And, if the artists we know are not in the habit of slicing off ears in episodic insanity, they could at the very least be overly sensitive, socially awkward and a little moody. We tolerate this, suspecting that without it, the production of a masterpiece is not very likely.

If our romantic view of artists is informed by art history, what accounts for our skepticism where contemporary art is concerned? In recent years after all, art made out of fried eggs has won awards. At the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis there is a dead horse hanging from the ceiling. There are some art schools that no longer teach drawing.

As rap artist Jay Z recently opined, "Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people, distracted by the blur of life, might miss."

We want to agree with Jay Z, but we suspect that something terrible has happened to art. It no longer makes sense. We simply don't "get" much of the art being made today, and that can make us feel stupid, offended or annoyed.

It should come as no surprise that we are completely unoriginal in our skepticism. As Gillmor points out, "We often think that the current crop of artist-provocateurs have pushed the limits way beyond anything ever done before. But you can find controversies about art exceeding the limits of taste or morality going back to the Renaissance."

Even our beloved impressionists, she says, who painted those beautifully hazy scenes of pink and purple water lilies, were once grossly misunderstood, even reviled.

"When they started out," says Gillmor, "a cartoonist warned that their 'shocking' paintings might cause pregnant women to miscarry."

Gillmor's talk will allow patrons to acknowledge just how much history has informed their thinking, and will allow them to locate exactly where they sit on the spectrum between reverence for the artist and suspicion.


Sarah Swan is a Winnipeg artist and writer. She will host Art Talk/Art Walk at the Free Press News Café on Friday at 6 p.m. Call 204-697-7069 for tickets to the event.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2014 D3

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