Thursday, May 17, 2012

Excerpt from The Artist's Dilemma by Mark Rothko


What is the popular conception of the artist?  Gather a thousand descriptions, and the resulting composite is the portrait of a moron: he is held to be childish, irresponsible, and ignorant or stupid in everyday affairs.

The picture does not necessarily involve censure or unkindness.  These deficiencies are attributed to the intensity of the artist's preoccupation with his particular kind of fantasy and to the unworldly nature of the fantastic itself.  The bantering tolerance granted to the absentminded professor is extended to the artist.  Biographers contrast the artlessness of his judgements with the high attainment of his art, and while his naivete or rascality are gossiped about, they are viewed as signs of Simplicity and Inspiration, which are the handmaidens of Art.  And if the artist is inarticulate and lacking in the usual repositories of fact and information, how fortunate, it is said, that nature has contrived to divert from him all the worldly distractions so he may be single-minded in regards to his special office.

This myth, like all myths, has many reasonable foundations.  First, it attests to the common belief in the laws of compensation: that one sense will gain in sensitivity by the deficiency in another.  Homer was blind, and Beethoven deaf.  Too bad for them, but fortunate for us in the increased vividness of their art.  But more importantly it attests to the persistent belief in the irrational quality of inspiration, finding between the innocence of childhood and the derangements of madness that true insight which is not accorded to normal man.  When thinking of the artist, the world still adheres to Plato's view, expressed in Ion in reference to the poet: "There is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him."  Although science, with scales and yardstick, daily threatens to rend mystery from the imagination, the persistence of this myth is the inadvertent homage which man pays to the penetration of his inner being as it is differentiated from his reasonable experience.

Strange, but the artist has never made a fuss about being denied those estimable virtues other men would not do without: intellectuality, good judgement, a knowledge of the world, and rational conduct.  It may be charged that he has even fostered the myth.  In his intimate journals Vollard tells us that Degas feigned deafness to escape disputations and harangues concerning things he considered false and distasteful.  If the speaker or subject changed, his hearing immediately improved.  We must marvel at his wisdom since he must have only surmised what we know definitely today: that the constant repetition of falsehood is more convincing than the demonstration of truth.  It is understandable, then, how the artist might actually cultivate this moronic appearance, this deafness, this inarticulateness, in an effort to evade the million irrelevancies which daily accumulate concerning his work.  For, while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.


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