In a world with an overabundance of art, it can often be difficult to find a starting point to look for something special. What do you seek if you’re an emerging artist looking for inspiration? Who should you start to read or listen to if you wish to educate yourself in the world of art? And what different types of artists are out there?
I am not going to discuss any specifics of content, style, technique or ideas in this post. The great variety of brilliant art forbids it – there are so many different influences and ways of determining what a great work of art consists of that to reduce it to one blog post would be a ridiculously futile attempt. A Michelangelo has practically nothing to do with a van Gogh, a Bach practically nothing to do with a Stravinsky, and a Cervantes practically nothing to do with a Woolf. And yet all these people are perfectly brilliant, in their own way. This will not be a list of different types of schools, media (film, music, literature…) or people.
Instead, I am attempting to find overarching categories of creative artists that emerge in practically every generation. Think of it, perhaps, as an informative list of types of artists. Using it, you will be able to know what to look out for when studying the arts from a given perspective. It also will help, perhaps, to know what to avoid.
The word ‘art’, nowadays, has been thinned and diversified so far that it becomes impossible to define it – make a claim that x is not art and you’re sure to get a response saying, ‘who are you to determine what true art is?’ That doesn’t mean that you can’t make attempts at defining types, however – especially the type of artist we might term ‘creative artists’ (composers, writers, painters), as opposed to ‘performing artists’ (singers, musicians, actors, dancers).
Those who go with the flow
The first – and possibly most numerous – type of artist is the one who goes with the flow. Those with a – hopefully cunning – awareness of the current zeitgeist, a knowledge and understanding of what the currently most accepted and effective form of technique is and the ability to use it to their advantage by producing art very much ‘of its time’ to make a point.
In the best case, these types of artist become true masters of a particular period, time or school. They perfect their craft at a certain time. These types are not innovators as much as they refine their school. That’s not to say that they don’t innovate at all, but it is, at most, innovation within their field. Examples of this type may be Mozart for Vienna Classic, Bach for Baroque music or Pope for 17th-century poetry.
In the worst case, these types of artists are little more than imitators of innovators or masters of a given school. They become noticed because they write or paint things which are relevant to current events or for writing in a contemporary style; but they lack the foresight of the innovators and the skill of the masters. Yeats criticises them in ‘To a Poet, who would have me Praise certain Bad Poets, Imitators of His and Mine’:
You say, as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another’s said or sung,
‘Twere politic to do the like by these;
But have you known a dog to praise his fleas?
This type of artist sadly exists in abundance and in every period, although time usually does a good job of having them end up being forgotten. If nobody ends up being inspired by their work, they are most certainly not going to be remembered as great artists.
Those who break the flow
The second type consists of the innovators; those who invent new methods or find new themes to write or paint about. Their work tends to shock at first, but after a period of lukewarm reception sometimes finds a large and enthusiastic audience. They spend a great deal of their time experimenting with novel styles and techniques to discover new possibilities within their medium.
In the best case, this drives the world of art into a new direction. Rather than having art growing stale and uninteresting, it is kept alive, relevant and engaging. That’s not to say that they don’t become the masters of their style, but it is always the innovation which remains the more interesting part of their work. Examples of this type include Beethoven in the transition from Classical to Romantic music, Woolf and Joyce in literary fiction, Pound and Eliot in poetry, or the Impressionists in visual arts.
In the worst case, these types of artists don’t really innovate for the sake of furthering the world of art, but for the sake of attention. This is, in particular, a contemporary problem: the last 150 years saw a great many innovative artists who did great things, and as such they are generally praised more than those who perfect the craft – sadly to the extent that new or just plain bad artists will innovate for the sake of attention. As long as it is shocking, incomprehensible or just plain weird, they are sure to get some form of attention – and if anybody complains about it, the artists claim they were just being ‘experimental’.
Those who seek to please
Free from the constraints of academia and theory, free from the doctrines of an art world which constantly judges the contemporary nature and relevance of an artwork, this type of artist writes, paints or composes with a wider audience in mind. Their goal isn’t to create art that will last the ages, but art which will be popular and please as many people as possible.
In the best case, these types of artists will create truly endearing work, even if they may not be technically speaking ‘as good’ as some of the other types. Their work often falls under the category of popular fiction, and involves authors such as Rowling or Tolkien, a lot of the music industry, and a range of painters who paint pretty landscapes even today.
In the worst case, the constraints of the market replace the constraints of academia and the world of arts. Instead of doctrines telling an audience whether and why something is good or not, the market will run its course and end up praising something utterly awful because it has some merit within itself which makes it popular despite a complete lack of technique, relevance or even decency.
Those who seek nothing
The final type of artist is those who create for themselves. They have little interest in theory and dislike the constraints of the popular market. The art they create is primarily meant for themselves; their art is a vessel through which they try to formulate their private ideas or feelings. It is often wild and difficult to fit in a particular category; their themes can but needn’t relate to current events.
In the best case this type of artist creates work which is very refreshing. With little outside influence, the style can be rather unique, the ideas unusual and surprising, and the overall execution thereby different from anything else that has come before.
In the worst case, the lack of interest in the art world means that the work is often juvenile. If it is a particularly gifted artist it may not be juvenile, but through a lack of interest in the wider world of arts, it will generally go unnoticed.
Limitations of this list
Needless to say, this list has its limitations. It may take each possible type of artist into consideration, but not every artist falls neatly into one of these categories. Indeed, many may be part of multiple groups – especially the first two. Without a doubt, Picasso was a great innovator, having founded many schools, but he was also perfectly apt at perfecting each of them before moving on to the next. Yeats is similar. While he may not have founded many of the schools he was a part of, he showed a great finesse in furthering them and at the same time perfected his craft.
The second issue revolves around the difficulty in determining when a mastery of a school becomes the innovative drive towards another. An apt analogy may be to compare it with evolution: millions of examples of microevolution over the course of a long period of time will at some point have created a species which is recognisably something different than the species at the start. In the same spirit, someone constantly twisting and improving aspects of a certain school of art will have arrived at a completely different point.
Finally, the distinction between popular art and serious art is also extremely blurred. Seamus Heaney – while not a best-selling author to the extent of, say, Stephen King, was nevertheless popular enough to live on his poetry alone (a very rare feat indeed, in our day and age). Conversely, ‘popular’ authors can also write technically accomplished and encourage discussions about a variety of topics – although I would argue that this just emphasises my first limitation, ergo, an author writing to please can also be an innovator or someone who perfects a particular school.
How do we use this list?
With these limitations in mind, a new enthusiast of art or emerging artist can use this list to understand ‘the old masters’ better. By looking at a variety of art across time it becomes increasingly clear which artists brought something new to the table, which ones brought it to perfection, and which may be good, but not necessarily ground-breaking.
While many great artists are lost in time (and can thereby be rediscovered eventually), the best bet for someone starting out is to stick with those who have stood the test of time. By being popular inspirations for other artists, their work lives on and they remain in memory long after their death, whereas those who inspire little will be forgotten sooner or later.
It’s just an interesting way of looking at art and seeing where the transitional periods are, considering what influences brought about a particular change and how it is reflected in the work of a certain period, rather than memorising dates which tell you that ‘school x was lasted from the year yyyy until zzzz’.
What about contemporary works of art?
With the vast amounts of art produced on a daily basis today it becomes especially important to know what to take in and what to leave alone. Using this list can also help in that effort, because it shows that some works can receive attention which may not be deserved and only short-lived.
This especially refers to the first two types of artists – the go-with-the-flowers and the innovators. A work may receive a lot of praise from artistic and academic circles by merit of it being new and shocking, or otherwise because it is speaking directly to contemporary events – even if, in the first case, there is little thought and feeling behind it beyond its shock-value, or in the second case is little more than a piece of propaganda.
A generally good rule-of-thumb is to trust your guts. Does the work of art do anything for or to you? Does it contain something which hooks you? If it does, is this based on a momentary whim or will the experience of the artwork change your perspective, your outlook, your mood – in short, will it stick with you? Don’t fall into the trap of dismissing everything out-of-hand, however. Just because it is being praised and is particularly difficult it doesn’t mean that it is good, but it also doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad, either.
With the masses of art out there, any emerging artist or student of the arts may be at a loss where to start. This list may provide a useful starting point in that endeavour. But are there alternative ways of going about it? Or is there any type I should have added to this list? Then please leave a comment in the comments section below. Otherwise, why not share it on social media? Then please click on one of the tender buttons to let everyone know of your discovery.