THE FLATTERING NOTION—fallacy, really—that artists see more than other, unpoetic, people comes to us from the Romantics. The German brand (Hegel, Schelling, Hölderlin, Schiller, Fichte and no small bit of Goethe) has been particularly virulent. Up to a point, of course, that bit about seeing has some merit. Down the centuries, artists were better than bakers, butchers, masons, et alia, at distinguishing one shade of gray from another, arranging colors in pleasing relation to each other, and gauging subtleties of line and hue. The fallacious part kicks in when seeing separates from looking and comes to be confused with seer. The artist is no longer an intelligent, keen-eyed craftsman but a shaman-like figure with a vision to express. A vision of what? Do not bother asking. A vision is a vision and is its own reason for being.
Worse than providing a vehicle for undigested visions, art is believed to express our inner selves—the very entity best kept covered out of modesty and love of neighbor. The sacred inner self of the artist, that modern brat, sees deeper into the nature of reality than the folks next door. As one self-admiring artist [name not needed] phrased it:
Artists live in a different reality than what we normally call the ‘real’ world. To artists, the world of images or forms, or ideas and feelings, is more “real” than the nuts and bolts world. I would agree, from my own experience. I think that serious artists live with a “cosmic” sense – that is, consciously or not, they are aware that galaxies and universes, both in macrocosm and microcosm, are spinning and traveling in space, while we humans go about our daily business. This gives artists the necessary perspective of the dreamer, to take the ‘long’ view of reality.
Note the telling term “we humans.” It implies the artist is a supra-human being, elevated above the mass, a consecrated medium between ordinary life and the numinous. The comedy here is that, nowadays, we are all artists, all vessels of sacramental visions of one sort or another. That makes a dog’s breakfast of things.
In at least one respect, primitive societies showed more common sense. Readers of anthropology—particularly the work of Mary Douglas—know that primitive cultures drew strict boundaries between what could be seen and what must remain veiled from view. As Rochelle Gurstein adds in The Repeal of Reticence, they “erected elaborate ritual practices around this distinction.”
We moderns prefer to surrender the work of making distinctions. Every judgment is, of necessity, a discrimination. And that cannot be tolerated. So our art is a bedlam in which one vision—one see-er—is as venerable as the next, with no way to distinguish between the crackpot and the exalted.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey