Beware, the Romantic Cult of the Artist

Yes, we’ve admired madmen, especially those of a tragic sort via what I see as often incestuous works of art. You know, celebrations of other works of art or, especially, their creators.

In effect, there’s a question. Other works based on mythology, classical or Nordic, typically, face immortals who are still caught in some dimension of time – how else could they spawn children?

Turning the focus from flawed gods to the Immortal Artist, then, implicitly asks: Are madmen closer to God? Or filled with demons to be cast out, perhaps as artworks?

You know, the cliché history of poet suicides or pianist-composers who die at an early age or libertine actresses, that sort of tragedy, not always as a consequence of defying the gods, either. Think of all the poets in the core opera librettos – a shorthand for the librettist himself or the social commentator – as well as the composers or singers. It’s a long list.

Remember, too, in many Native cultures, there’s a special place for the madman as gateway to ancient wisdom or healing or a netherworld.

Admired madmen but also feared them. Just don’t get too close, even with a morbid curiosity.

Like the artist, they exist at the fringe of the village.

It’s implicit even in hymns about hymns and the raising of voices.

And also my speaking here as a fellow poet and novelist.

~*~

It’s hard to look beyond our own boundaries and explore the greater world beyond.

This is crucial, if we’re to engage others, in light of murder, rape, warfare, and other oppression and injustice around us. Is art really far from fostering imitation in life itself? Or is it rather for escape from any reality? Do we desire encounter or flight?

Earlier, I admired dazzling tricks and outward style, derring-do, and jests with fancy footwork. Shining surfaces and surreal images.

Over time, that’s changed.

My heroes have become more human and flawed, as well.

~*~

Throughout much of Friends’ history, many of the fine arts were offensive to the faithful; most painting, drawing, sculpture, fiction, theater, music, and opera were seen as superfluous vanities, engagements that took our attention away from worship. “We Quakers only read true things” is how one Friend expressed the matter when returning an unread novel to a neighbor. For a people who refused even gravestones, worldly adornments detracted from loving a heavenly Father with all their heart, mind, and soul, as well as loving one another as Christ had loved his/its followers.

Tertullian issued a related warning, in De Spectaculis, Latin circa 200 CE. Essentially: “The Author of truth loves no falsehood: all that is feigned is adultery in His sight. The man who counterfeits voice, sex or age, who makes a show of false love, anger, sighs and tears He will not approve, for He condemns all hypocrisy. … Why should it be lawful to see what it is a crime to do?” (Translation by Kenneth Morse)

As was recognized in Zen some centuries ago, when people started writing and singing and painting and acting from their spiritual practice, the flowering is already past its zenith. Nonetheless, we also know the power of the Zen-suffused works as they extended on to pottery, architecture, tea ceremony, even martial arts.

When I view Japanese and Chinese art, the Zen/Chan pieces jump out in their freshness from the well-schooled stream of traditional art.

Thus, with poetry or musical performance that knows living silence: a whole higher dimension. Necessity for revolution here. Transformation. Transfiguration. Transcendence. Transparency, too.

Is this a matter of like recognizing like spirit?

~*~

My real distrust of the celebration of the artist as a demigod comes in a plea for greater humility.

Yes, we work – as the poem Toltecatl, translated as “The Artist” by Denise Leverov details lovingly before countering with “The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people, / makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things, / works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.”

The contrast is telling.

We’re hardly alone in work. Plumbers work, paying the price in their knees. Farmers work. Teachers work. Mothers, especially, work. Go on down the line, and admire all who do so with developed skill and intelligence and service. Who can say one field is truly superior the others?

~*~

I’m left wondering about a crossover identity of artist and priest, an expectation that the artist is expected to guide others into love or even the natural wonder around us.

It’s a fine line, between being a priest and a demigod. An inflated ego is a constant temptation, among others.

Still, how can I not love the movie “Amadeus”?

Who do you look to for inspiration?

4 thoughts on “Beware, the Romantic Cult of the Artist

  1. Jesus said it simple, those that direct you to the light of the Father,are all worthy, how we see things, is based on experiences, good teachers help the process but in the end, it’s a journey, with no beginning and no end, as Jesus tells all, God, the God of the living, not the dead, thanks for the post, we need directions during every day, without them, we crash, artists remind us, who is the great chess master who moves the pieces, have a great weekend, amen.

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