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Who Decides?

by Miles Mathis

A reader wrote in this week with a rather interesting question. She wanted to know when one was qualified to call oneself an artist. Was it enough to have passion or did one require some sort of recognition from society?

The question betrays insecurity, but it is substantive nonetheless. Van Gogh admitted just this insecurity in his letters to his brother Theo. He also had little or no success during his lifetime. Yet he is widely thought to be a great artist, and is almost universally admitted to be an artist, great or not. So what does this tell us? Let us take it as a given that Van Gogh was an artist. It follows that he was an artist from the time he began creating art. Meaning that he did not suddenly become an artist once society recognized him as one, having only been an aspirant until then. No, he either was or was not an artist, and if he was then the title is retroactive—it applies to the living man as well as to the dead man.

So let us return to the living man, say Van Gogh in Arles—having no money, no recognition, and great insecurity. If he is an artist with no money, no recognition and no security then none of these qualities must be tied to the title "artist".

We have answered the second part of the question: society has nothing to do with it. Society was wrong during Van Gogh's lifetime, and if it can be wrong for any period of time it can be wrong for any other period of time. Which is to say that if society can be wrong for ten years then it can be wrong forever. Society does not define the artist. The quality of the work defines the artist. Society may eventually recognize that quality or it may never recognize that quality. There was no guarantee that Van Gogh would be recognized, and no doubt real artists have been permanently buried by history. They are no less artists for that. Velázquez was ignored for centuries. Bouguereau was ignored for most of last century. Did he cease to be an artist during that time? No. The quality of the paintings did not change—only our opinion of them did.

Well then, is it the passion that defines the quality—that allows an artist to claim the title? Again, no. An extremely passionate person can sit down at the piano, but unless he or she knows how to play, no passionate music will arise. Painting is precisely the same. The artist must be both passionate and highly skilled.

So what does define the artist? Until recently in history, few people would have thought of bestowing the title "artist" upon everyone who painted. An artist was someone who created very good art. My reader clearly was using "artist" in this old-fashioned, hierarchical sense. The problem now becomes that word "good." Who decides? We have seen that it is not society. They can be wrong. Likewise the artist himself can be wrong. In his years of insecurity Van Gogh was wrong; he misjudged himself. So not even an artist's own opinion is decisive. What does that leave us? Am I sugggesting that God or the gods decide? No, I am suggesting that the question, like all other factual questions, is not finally decided upon by anyone. It is not a matter of opinion at all. Either one is or is not an artist; one is either creating good art or not. It is like asking whether an animal is a cat or not or whether the planet Mercury has an iron core or not. You do not take a vote on it and you do not ask the cat. Nor do you apply to the gods or Muses. You study cats or planets, remembering that no matter how much you learn about cats or planets you may still be wrong. And remembering that your changing opinion as you learn more does not make cathood or planethood "relative." It only means that your approach to the truth is always incomplete.

Think of it this way: a lack of understanding about the mechanics of vision does not make the universe blurry. The universe is precise. It has, as far as we can see, infinite resolution. The more detail we seek, the more we find. It is only our knowledge that is blurry.

All this means that our original question was somewhat blurry itself. In the real world one does not call oneself an artist because one has a right to but because one has the confidence to. Obviously there are those who have the confidence but not the right. Who decides that? There are two answers. In an egalitarian society we all have the right to decide for ourselves. In practice it is those who reach positions of power who decide. You might now ask, who decides if those in positions of power are right? And this shows the circularity of asking "who decides", since the question is not necessarily linked to the truth of the matter. "Who decides" is a practical question, one easily answered by looking at a chain of command. "Who is closer to the truth" is much more difficult, since it is both factual (in that logically there must be one correct answer) and epistemological (in that, due to the incomplete nature of knowledge, a final answer is difficult to demonstrate).

To simplify the problem, we might sharpen the question a bit. Instead of asking who has certain knowledge, we should ask who is most likely to be closer to the truth. Who would it be most reasonable to put in a position of power (should positions of power suddenly become rationally created). To answer this, let me be Socratic for a moment and ask a few direct questions. If you wanted an expert opinion on deep sea diving, and your life depended on this opinion, would you be more likely to hire as a guide someone who had made a thousand successful dives or someone who had studied diving all his life in the library, but had never been below ten feet? If you had a brain tumor and were in search of medical advice to save your life, would you consult a surgeon who had removed over a hundred tumors or a medical consultant who had studied brain tumors for years but had never once operated? The answers to these questions are clear and the answer to the art question is directly analogous. If you want to know about good art ask a good artist. If he only stutters or speaks nonsense, ask another good artist. It is not that the first doesn't know, it is only that he can't tell you clearly. Eventually you will find an artist who can speak as well as paint. But if you ask non-artists you will only get nonsense on down the line forever. Non-artists may accidentally approach the truth occasionally, but only when they are repeating something they got from an artist and haven't had time to muck up yet.

A very clever reader will say, "For heaven's sake, if I know a good artist from a bad artist, then I don't need to ask an artist to tell me what good art is. I already know." Precisely. Which is why it is best not to talk about art at all, except as an amusing diversion (or to tell people who don't know what they are talking about to shut up). If you have to be taught what is beautiful and interesting then you probably can't be taught what is beautiful and interesting.

Fortunately, most people do have a fair dose of artistic instinct. Most people have some natural level of sensitivity. The truth of the matter, as we have seen in the last century, is that you have to teach people not to see beautiful and interesting things. It takes years of theoretical indoctrination to make most people immune to their own natural tastes. Children have to be yoked early to convince them that their own biological and artistic instincts are so faulty, indeed evil. In this context, an artist is simply someone with a bit stronger instinct for beauty or harmony or resonance (which used to be called "talent") and a bit more ability to resist outside influence. In the final reckoning, after all the philosophy and esoteric talk, this is the best reason to answer "the artist" when asked "who should decide?" The artist has demonstrated, through his own work, the clearest and most logical qualifications.

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