Artist as Seer

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.
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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.
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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


  1. A sort of parable:

    “First [the Dodo] marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (`the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no `One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?’

    This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’

    `But who is to give the prizes?’ quite a chorus of voices asked.”

  2. Notice the setting. A bar. Artists can see a lot after a few beers. Much of what they see is their own press release.

  3. Reference to Wonderland is perfectly appropriate. The dodos are out in great number. Everybody wins, and all must have prizes. What more is there to say?

  4. Thank you for this Maureen. Talking about these pretentions in a rational manner, regardless of what me may think of that artist’s body of work, is somewhat scarce, especially online.

    Artists may have a more visual predisposition than others, but this does not make them any more or less perceptive. The other side of this is some artists aversion to being called ‘painters’.

    Perhaps this tendency to build a mystique around their life and work serves their ego, and perhaps the art market. There has to be some gain in it surely, be it fulfilling an emotional need, or simply a financial one.


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