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Recently I have come to realize that I have been living my life thinking that I am trailblazing through things. I think that I am a completely creative and original person. But I have realized that this isn’t possible. Evidently people have been here long before me, and have even bothered to construct a path so that it could be followed, so I am not the original little genius I hoped I was.
I was disappointed. If this was indeed my “life path” then that meant I was following the way of many others. I had always pictured myself trailblazing my way through life, always being creative and original. Evidently I wasn’t going to be the adventurer I thought I would.
This is the common way Americans think of artists, beginning in the nineteenth century. The artist has been thought of and expected to be the “creative genius”, always paving new ground in whatever artistic genre he belongs to. We think that if the artist isn’t completely original, if he "borrows" ideas from others, than he is a rip-off or a hack. For us, artistic quality only comes from those who are breaking new ground. All else is just B work.
Keeping this in mind I would like to explore the authenticity of the modern artist. Sartre introduced the concept of authenticity and inauthenticity in his book Anti-Semite and Jew. He used this to describe Jews under the power of Anti-Semitism in the earlier part of this century. I think his distinctions between authentic, inauthentic and the democrat are all applicable here with the modern artist.
First let’s look at the inauthentic artist. Sartre describes an inauthentic being as someone who can’t see himself but can see others. The inauthentic artist then is one who thinks in that nineteenth century mode of thought where he is the focal point of creativity. I was a purely inauthentic artist when I thought of myself as living on a completely original path.
The inauthetic artist doesn’t concentrate on his work as much, thinking that since he is the 'creative genius', any half assed piece will do. This is not to say that the art of an inauthentic artist is worthless. He can see other people for what they are, and he uses this to create grand interpretations of humanity. The problem is that no matter how clearly he depicts the big picture, the inauthentic artist misses out on what is inside of himself and won’t strive to achieve real pride in his work.
What the inauthentic artist strives for instead is to be recognized within his particular art scene, whether that be drawing, painting, writing, music or film. He is less concerned with himself as an artist and more concerned with how the art world sees him. He falls into pretentiousness. This is why he cannot see himself, for he is blinded by the idea that he is the creative genius. And if his art is bad and he is starving to death, the inauthentic artist blames that on society for not recognizing his worth in the first place.
We’ve run into some examples of the inauthentic artist. The first example of is Jean Genet. Genet’s work was brilliant and he could truly see the darkness that resided within other people. But Genet associated his art with being an outlaw. He placed himself outside of society and refused to be bound by customs or morals in his work. But when Genet’s work made him a celebrity he couldn’t take it. His image of the creative genius as a total scoundrel was washed away. This depressed him greatly.
Another inauthentic artist then is Martin Heideggar. Like Genet, his work was profound and provided insight into humanity and society. But when it came to looking at himself, Heideggar was useless. His affair with Hannah Arendt ( his Jewish pupil) and his loyalty to the Nazi party all kept him blind. He wanted to be seen as the great thinker, but all those around him regarded him as a fool.
Maybe this is why Hannah Arendt always referred to him as just a “Bavarian peasant”. She knew that Heideggar wasn’t the creative genius he painted himself as. Even after he lost his job as head of the university, Heideggar tried to project the image of the great artist. Professor Rosenfield describes him as holed up in his cabin, accepting visitors from behind a drawn screen. Even after he was rejected by his peers, Heideggar still tried to maintain the allure of the creative genius.
vSo what then makes an artist truly authentic? Sticking with Sartre’s ideas, the authentic artist is one who can see others, but can also see himself. He understands that as an artist he may or may not be a creative genius. It is irrelevant to his work. The authentic artist is serious about his work and knows that it is a job like any other. He concentrates on producing a satisfactory product, that can be sold and still has authentic quality.
The authentic artist can see himself, so he understands his position in the grand scheme of the art world. He doesn’t worry about being recognized as a genius. If he has to paint signs for a living than he will. He understands that art is something that is marketable and isn’t worried about his reputation within a brooding scene of inauthentic artists.
They all claw at each other. Each hopes to be recognized as the one and only creative genius. The authentic artist lets them be and continues on with his work, understanding that it is okay to recycle works of art into his own. He knows that others have been here before him and understands that it would be impossible to create something of quality without borrowing from artists of the past.
Joshua Reynolds is an excellent example of the authentic artist. Even though he was the first President of the Royal Academy of Arts, he started off having his sister sell paintings off the side of his wagon. Reynolds knew that painting was an occupation, not something that would make him a celebrity. He thought it was perfectly all right to recycle art in his work.
He didn’t like other painters and considered them spiteful and envious. Instead he chose to associate with a group of literary and political figures for dinners. There he found meaningful and thought inspiring conversation. Reynolds was authentic in every sense. He recognized his position as an artist and didn’t attempt to glorify it. He worked diligently and gained prominence through his serious work, not his reputation as any sort of genius.
A more modern example of the authentic artist would be found in Andy Warhol. Warhol understood that in the twentieth century we have come to accept the artist as both the creative genius and the marketable tool. We insist on originality but use our art on everything from advertisements to clothing accessories. Warhol was authentic because his works expressed an understanding of the materialism present in art. He recycled images like Brillo pads, Cambell’s soup and soda cans.
At the same time, Warhol understood his position within it all. He knew that his art was a product and that was why he called his studio “the Factory”. Even though he was regarded as a creative genius and his art spawned an entire scene that fed off of inauthentic art, Warhol was authentic in his own right. He could see the way that others looked at art, and he could see himself for what he was.
Sartre also lays out an explanation for the person he calls the Democrat. In his terms, the democrat was someone who could see himself clearly enough, but could not see the others around him. In terms of the modern artist, the democrat is the consumer. He knows who he is but cannot connect with other living people. Sartre says, "to the democrat, the individual is only an ensemble of universal traits."
In this sense America is truly "democratic" although we don’t actually reside within an actual democracy. This is a country full of people who are blind to their surroundings and hold comfort only in seemingly knowing themselves. Each individual has certain cut and paste traits we apply to them. Americans are emotionally crippled and are unable to connect with other people around them. They are envious of the artist and the modern thinker because these people can connect. What the inauthentic and authentic artist hold in common with each other is their ability to see or connect with others. The democrat lacks this and spitefully resents those who can connect.
Reynolds noticed this same thing about the artists whom he hated associating with. They were spiteful and vengeful toward him, probably because they recognized his ability to connect as an authentic artist. So if these democrats have difficulty seeing and connecting with other people, how do they manage to all get along together in one big society?
One way of connecting comes to the Democrat through exploiting the creations of the very artists they resent. Americans buy plenty of material goods that have art plastered on to them. We wear so many shirts, hats and other accessories that are adorned with symbols for sports teams, musicians and tourist attractions. Even tattoos are creations of art that we wear.
Think of a t-shirt that says "FLORIDA!" in big bold letters and displays a colorful dolphin jumping out of the ocean in a brilliant sunny setting. The man who wears this isn’t just trying to impress other people with his proof of purchase that he has indeed been to Miami. He is struggling with his own inability to connect. He hopes that through his Miami shirt that he will be able to connect with someone else who has been there, and will replace his loneliness with a temporary connection.
Heideggar said that art allows us to have a certain caring for things within their own contexts. We would each have a different appreciation for objects depending on how they are portrayed in art. He says that " other ways, like technological ones, which treat everything as standing on reserve, deny that we are one being among many beings."
Years later, art has been corrupted by this technological way of viewing things. We use art as a resource for us to connect with other people at our own leisure. Unfortunately, this temporary connection encourages man to be in flight from thought and connection. It allows the democrat to get away with his universal treatment of other individuals.
Art provides the democrat with the means to continue his denial that he is one among many. Without it, he would be forced to recognize his solitude and learn to connect with people the way the authentic and inauthentic artists do. They see others for what they are and that helps provide them with insight for their creations, which in turn become material resources for the democrat and his search for temporary human connection.