In 2011, Lady Gaga was voted Time magazine’s second most influential person of the noughties, losing out only to Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Last year, Jeff Koons’ sculpture, “Balloon Dog” was sold at an auction for $58.4 million, an unprecedentedly high sum for a work of art. And this year, New York fashion designer Michael Kors joined the ranks of businessmen and entrepreneurs on Forbes’ ‘Billionaire List’.
It cannot be denied that we live in a time when artists, whether in the visual or performance arts, are some of the most influential people in the world, placed on a towering pedestal. The cult of the artist and the cult of the celebrity often overlap to the point of inseparability; that is not to say that all celebrities are artists, but many artists are celebrities.
Did artists always enjoy such high prestige in society? The short answer: certainly not. In Ancient Greece, visual artists were looked down on as manual labourers and up until the 17th century in Europe actresses were dismissed as prostitutes (sometimes because they did indeed sell their bodies to get a bit of extra cash). So when did The Artist go from being a low life to living the high life?
The ancients had a complicated relationship with their artists. The Greeks and Romans treated their sculptors with such disdain that the philosopher, Seneca, once said, “One venerates the divine images, one may pray and sacrifice to them, yet one despises the sculptors who made them.” And yet they had great respect for non-visual art, such as music and drama. The hugely popular annual ‘Dionysian’ festival included the productions of playwrights such as Sophocles, who was of high birth and status.
The representation of artists in Greek mythology, as passed down by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, gives no single homogeneous view of The Artist. On the one hand, there is the musician, Orpheus, who descended to the Underworld in pursuit of his love, as well as Eurydice, who is presented as a civilising force.
But on the other hand, other mythological maestros are accused of the ultimate sin in the Ancient World – challenging the role of the gods. For example, Prometheus by fashioning humans out of clay and stealing fire in order to bring them to life, and Arachne by boasting about being a better weaver than the goddess Athena.
This idea of the irreligiosity of the Artist was also what perturbed the Plato, who believed hat all poets should be thrown out of his ideal Republic because they were subversive to the state. The Romans, however, were more forgiving towards their writers, for example, highly revering Virgil. In his magnum opus, the Aeneid, he presented a vision of Roman identity based on civic duty.
He was admired not just for his role as propagandist for his patron, Augustus, but also for his poetic skill and execution. In terms of visual arts, Pliny’s Natural History was a very early prototype of art criticism, celebrating individual artists and elevating creativity to a level of prestige.
Despite this, for centuries, the concept of the Artist all but disappeared. During the Middle Ages, those who created artefacts were considered to be divinely inspired, but were largely anonymous. The monks who illustrated the Book of Kells were using their skills in the service of God, rather than self- consciously creating art. Their names will never be known. Compare this attitude with our obsession with the exact identity of Banksy.
It was only during the Renaissance that the role of the artist dramatically changed: the deifier became the deified. Artists were now regarded as learned and cultivated people, serving a moral and political purpose in society. Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550) helped to reintroduce the notion of individual artists with their own distinctive style. Not only did society’s view of The Artist alter, so did his view of himself: Michelangelo, nicknamed the ‘divine’, openly considered himself a genius.
In the Romantic period, the Artist’s sense of self-importance increased, along with public perception. Artists were motivated by material reward, elevated status and high patronage. Until the celebrity of the artists sometimes overtook that of their patrons: at first Haydn was famous for being the composer of Prince Estarházy; thirty years later Prince Estarházy was famous for being the patron of Haydn. Creative talent increasingly became associated with mental torment (for example, in the work of literally any French poet), although the actual term ‘tortured artist’ was a retrospective post-Romantic invention.
Nowadays, artists have a higher status than ever before. The public is fascinated and seduced by the romance of the ‘Great Artist’, who has creative license in life as well as art. We have come full circle from ancient times when art was about skill and not originality. Now art may require no skill, but must be original. Lady Gaga does not write all her songs. Jeff Koons has over 120 people in his studio helping him build his gigantic sculptures. And long gone are the days when Michael Kors had any role in making the clothes and shoes that bear his name. But they definitely are original.
As the personalities of artists become ever more dominant, it becomes more difficult to separate them from their art. Do we know Yoko Ono for her art, or because she was married to the musician John Lennon and has a penchant for idiosyncratic hats? The high status of artists in society such as ours may not be a bad thing, but we mustn’t allow the celebrity of an artist to eclipse what we think of their art.