Thinking about this topic as the foundation for another post, I was wondering where to start. It could end up being annoyingly ‘academic’ – especially considering big names such as Roland Barthes (The Death of the Author) or Michel Foucault (What is an Author) dominate the discussion.
But I don’t want to bore you. Or myself for that matter. After all, this blog is not about academic debates; it’s about the arts. And much can be said about this topic for people who are seeking pure enjoyment without referring to critical theory.
To put it quite bluntly: when you’re looking at a work of art for pleasure, often the artist just doesn’t matter too much when trying to understand or enjoy it. It works the other way, as well: if you’re an artist, the artwork is often more than just a mirror of your personality. You’re a creator, after all.
So here I list several reasons why I believe this to be the case. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t appreciate the artist who created a piece you enjoy; if you’re an artist it certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put a piece of yourself in your darlings. But it does mean that you should separate the text from its author.
Reasons for viewers of the art
The personality of the artist might not be in the art
A work of art is a complicated construction, a product of many hours (days, months, years…) of intense effort in making something new and interesting. In the process, part of the personality of the artist may become part of the work of art – but never the whole personality. On top of that, sometimes the work might not include aspects of the artist’s personality at all, but be entirely fictional, based on something the artist made up or researched.
The more complicated the work of art, the more difficult it becomes to see exactly where the artist’s personality shines through. Art is often too complex to be just a reflection of its author, even if the personality is partly or wholly contained within.
Artists often work on a subconscious level
Many artists will tell you that, while they put a huge amount of effort into their work, much of it is done on a subconscious level. It might involve a memory they’re not entirely sure of, a belief they don’t consciously know they hold, or a form of technical finesse which flows into the art without awareness. For this reason, equating the artist’s intention with the finished work of art is not always possible.
Lives are complicated
If you think about your own life and realise how complicated it is, it doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to realise that the artist’s life is probably just as complicated. Therefore, to see some part of the text, painting or music as the same as an event in the artist’s life is futile; it might just be a coincidence.
Art is often selective; artists pick key details to bring their point/ feeling across – a single painting, an aria which lasts for five minutes, or a poem which contains 50 lines probably won’t contain the entire revelation of a complicated personality.
Of course, art can be complex, but lives are too complicated to be incorporated entirely in a single work of art.
Artists often put on masks
In many cases, especially in the literary arts, artists put on masks to explore a topic or feeling from a different point of view than their own. They seek to evoke the sensibility of the character they are speaking through, not to proclaim their own thoughts and emotions.
In such cases, any given interpretation of the art might be completely different to the one the artist has in mind, or it might explore a view contrary to the artist’s opinion – just based on the artist’s interest in the portrayed persona.
Reasons for the artist
You’re creating a work of art, not an opinion piece
So, you have a philosophical theory which will change the way we think forever? An idea which will improve our lives? Wonderful! Then write an essay. You might very well include it in your artwork, but if your aim is to convince people of something, you might want to write in a medium which is suitable to convince, rather than one which is often used to make people feel a certain way.
In the end, the only thing which matters is what people see in the work of art. They can’t read your mind and guess what arguments led you to your conclusion, and they usually approach art form a different angle than, for example, an essay.
The reverse is also true: if you include a whole range of arguments in the artwork, it probably feels more like an essay and will be treated accordingly. It doesn’t mean that your opinions don’t matter – but it does mean that if your artwork doesn’t include the entirety of an argument, your underlying ideas don’t matter to what you’ve put on the paper, canvas, or in the music. Only what your text actually says reaches the reader.
Your private life may be fascinating – but it doesn’t make the art good
You might have had the most fascinating life. The most tragic of love affairs. The most hilarious of comedic occurrences. Great! But if it isn’t presented in the work of art, it just isn’t relevant.
If you have someone read your poem, listen to your instrumental piece, or see your abstract painting, it just doesn’t matter what you experienced – only what the art says is contained within the art.
It’s always great when something inspires you profoundly, but don’t assume that the weight of your experience automatically makes your art good; you still need to present the end-product well. Which, in the end, sadly means that your personal life doesn’t matter to the viewer of your art (unless the art is a biography, I suppose).
Your intentions may be fascinating – but they don’t make the art good, either
This is, essentially, the same point as the previous one. You might have noble intentions with your work, a brilliant idea, an intoxicating experience you wish to transmute to your reader. Great!
But your intentions and ideas must be contained within the art. If your art only works with additional explanations to outline the intentions, it has failed as art. Only what the viewer can see, read, or hear directly is important; everything else can only add minutely to the understanding of what’s being seen. Nothing that can be written about art should be more interesting than looking at the art.
Art is creative and thus involves creation
Use your imagination – you are more than the sum of your life experiences. There is little in this world which is more complicated than human existence, and we are capable of learning new things, reading and listening to others, and combining this input in creative works to synthesise something new which touches the viewer in some way.
Therefore, you are not limited to your immediate experience. Artists have written about things not immediately personal forever. It does mean that you must go through the pesky process of creating something good, of course, which is self-contained and capable of evoking the emotions when you’re not present and the viewer knows absolutely nothing about you.
Perhaps the title of this post is unfair: the artist matters a great deal! Without the artist, there is no work of art, plain and simple. You are capable of combining the whole range of all parts of your identity and transforming it into something which moves others in some way – take pride in that! But don’t be a helicopter artist; allow your audience to live on their own, develop, and dare to speak even when you’re not there.
Inspiration is a great thing, and it is fascinating to see where an artist comes from, but it doesn’t provide us with immediate information on how to interpret or understand the text. The artist might be exploring the same themes he or she experienced in life, but they are not to be taken to be the same thing.
If you are viewing art and equate x from the art with y from the artist, you are doing both an injustice – a lot more work and effort might very well have gone and probably did go into the construction of the piece you are witnessing. Therefore, most ‘I’s in a poem are not just the poet, not all depictions of suffering in a painting are identical to the artist’s experience, and not all tortured moments of tension within music are based on the personal suffering of the composer. They’re probably related, yes – but they might also be more than the pure expression of the artist’s personality. The artist isn’t his or her art, and the art isn’t the artist – both can be so much more than merely a part of each other! Because the artist can give the audience more room to tickle out those differences is precisely why he or she does matter.
Do you agree or disagree? Is there anything else I didn’t think about which should be added to the post? Then please leave me a comment and we can start a dialogue. Otherwise, please share it on social media by clicking on one of the tender buttons below.