ARTISTS DO LOVE TO THINK OF THEMSELVES as different from everyone else. They are first on line for the latest article, book, monograph or lecture on the problems of the artist’s personality and the mysterious springs of his creative power. They bathe in popular notions of their own otherness and cater to popular illusion like savvy account execs in ad agencies. It is so satisfying to count oneself a member of an exotic tribe that is, and always has been, temperamental, egocentric, neurotic, defiant, anarchistic, unreliable, licentious (that’s the best part), flamboyant, obsessed and all-around incorrigible. Being an artist means never to having say your sorry for bad manners or cruelty. You can pee in your neighbor’s fireplace, steal his wallet or his wife, and it’s not your fault. A creative temperament is the devil that made you do it.
Only that it is not true.
Born Under Saturn, Rudolph and Margot Wittkover ‘s ambitious 1963 study, begins in ancient times and goes forward to the Romantic Age to find out if there really is such a thing as an artistic personality. Three hundred or so fascinating pages later, they conclude that, no, there is not. They label as arbitrary the typology, developed and enhanced by psychologists, that affirmed the traditional image of the alienated, misbehaving artist:
In previous chapters, we have endeavoured to follow up the varying fortunes of this particular image which sprang, we found, from changing conceptions [of the artist’s social role] rather than from an innate, specifically artististic temper. But under certain conditions and in certain periods the artist lived up to expectations.
In other words. the “artistic temper” is a product of social conditions, not a driver of them:
Throughout the pages of this book we have implied, without labouring the point, that cultural trends have a determining impact on the formation and development of character.
The book is even more valuable now than it was when it was written.
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The sixties are, finally, in their death-throes.
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A nation facing such staggering debt as ours, not to mention the interest on that debt, simply cannot afford the luxury of artistic temperaments. Just as the flâneur and the bohemian were byproducts of 19th century French affluence, our own artsy dispensation is the passé artifact of an affluence that is shrinking faster than we want to know.
© Maureen Mullarkey