Born Under Saturn

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.

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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. The sixties are, finally, in their death-throes. 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.

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© Maureen Mullarkey

5 Comments


  1. I wonder if there is an reactionary temperament. What in the world are you trying to say? Bohemianism, et al. was typified by material self-denial … if anything, Christ-like. He was born under Saturn. To state that frugality is un-affordable is a non-sequitur. There are two ways to escape want, to be a Flaneur. You only seem to admit one.
    And let me point out as well that “artistic temperament” could be archetype and construct simultaneously. That behavior and role would fluctuate according to social expectations is not in the least surprising, or conclusive. Unconventional behavior has often been punishable with death. Thanks.


  2. Ah, Mac, I think your problem is really with Wittkover. I just reported his findings. What he found is that the range of behaviors we label “an artistic temperament” are shared across the board with our fellows. Artists have no monopoly on eccentric behavior.

    There is nothing “frugal” about the willed poverty of bohemian lifestyles. Seceding from conventional means of making a living is not frugality. It has nothing to do with the virtue of thrift. It is no more than an act of defiance. To claim Jesus of Nazareth as a bohemian is to sadly misunderstand the Gospels. If you want a bohemian, go to Paradise Lost. In John Milton’s telling, “Non serviam” is the primordial battle cry of bohemia. Lucifer, then—not Christ—is the first bohemian.


  3. All I can add is that I know quite a few bohemians whose “frugality” cost their parents a lot of money. But it does seem that as they hang around reality longer, their distain for their parents’ middle-class value becomes less severe.


  4. I should read Wittkover before making such arguments. This post just hit me in the gut. But I think you’re wrong as to the frugality of bohemianism … if right about it as an act of defiance. My chicken coop and shabby clothes and lack of an auto have everything in the world to do with frugality … and distaste with iniquitous and unsustainable convention. I can spend more money and time studying painting, very much like 19th c. artists moving into lower-rent quarters and the recent artistic exodus to Brooklyn, etc.

    I’m no bible or Milton scholar, but I’ve read more of the latter and It would almost seem you’re paying a complement. In addition, rebellion against the conventions of Heaven and rebellion against the conventions of men (such as overturning tables) are not comparable. Such would be blasphemous, no?

    I very much enjoy your criticism but strongly disagree with your politics. It leaves me torn. I get over it by seeing the Courbet banner above. I’ve included my name as it’s as good as anonymous. Thanks.


  5. Thank you, Austin McClure, for signing in with your own name. I doubt you are as anonymous as you state. What we call “the art world” is really just short hand for the big buck end of things. The secondary market circuit, et cetera. In reality, there are many art worlds.

    Since you injected a religious note into the discussion [Christ as bohemian], please, let me respond to the issue of anonymity in kind. That lovely passage from Jeremiah seems suitable here: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Being known in the art world is the least of it.

    You say you like my criticism but not my politics. They come pretty much from the same center. Besides, I had not intended that post to be about politics per se. It was meant to touch on economics and history—both germane to talk of bohemia.

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