By Isaac Butler
It turns out I grew up in the twilight of a certain kind of myth of the artist. This myth, filtered down to us from the Romantics and Modernists is a kind of Artist as Outsider Saint, a radical visionary who stands outside society, outside of its norms and its staid conventions, sanctifying and revolutionizing it with his (almost invariably his) works. If you want to see how dated this myth is, read a book or watch a film that takes this myth as its core assumption. Crack the spine of, say, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If you've never read it before, I will bet you'll find it naggingly dated in its certainties, foreign, almost alien.
Over the course of my 20-some-odd years of off and on participation in the professional arts, we've lit this myth on fire, even though some tendrils of smoke waft here and there occasionally. This conflagration has been aided-- and in some cases caused-- by the internet. We now have ways to access art either for free (via piracy) or seemingly for free. We now have new ways to contact those who make the art. We now have new ways to make this art ourselves and distribute it at very little cost.
These are all positive developments. Yet as an unintended consequence of these developments and the explosion of fan culture (with its dominant artistic value of fan service), something has happened: our vision of what an artist and her art is for has radically shifted.
Over the past few months, I've come to notice this shift everywhere, in the absurdities surrounding Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, in the notion that exposure is a valid form of payment, in the calls on the left for to boycott Ender's Game, in the ways funders and administrators think, talk about and treat artists, or in the perplexing reviews of 12 Years a Slave which knock the film for being too "cold" or too well-made and powerful. You can even see it in our President's refusal to nominate a new chair of the NEA while publicly belittling the study of the Art History. It's there in the Realism Canard too. And in the constant dust-ups over the candid sound bytes of Dan Harmon.
We've done away with the ridiculous Outsider Saint. But we've replaced him with a Servant whose primary task is to make us feel good about ourselves, either through the work itself, or through the way the work (or the artist's personal life) allows us to grandstand. She must make art that reifies our core assumptions about the world, lest it be found problematic, and thus bad. He must not leave questions unanswered or uncomfortable realities uncomforted, lest the work's unsettling nature be taken as a formal weakness. And if she stands up for being paid for her work and/or treated with a modicum of decency, she is, of course, "difficult."
Oddly, The Simpsons saw this coming back in the late 90's in the episode Itchy and Scratchie and Poochie:
Comic Book Guy: Last night's Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured that I was on internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.
Bart Simpson: Hey, I know it wasn't great, but what right do you have to complain?
Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart Simpson: What? They've given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.
Comic Book Guy: Worst episode ever.
Having worked with and known artists who ascribe to the Outisder Saint Myth, I can attest that it's absurd and destructive on both a creative and personal level. But I am deeply suspicious of our new assumptions. Ultimately what suffers even more from the assumption that artists are servants to be paid in applause is the art itself. For if the only thing art is good for is making us feel good, why bother encountering it in the first place? There are so many other substances and activities we can engage in that do a better, more efficient job of making us feel good. Why bother?