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Part III: The Artiste
by Solomon Philbrick
Wherein Simon explicates the existence, role and meaning of the commercial artist in America.
Thomas: Simon, I do not know why I put up with you. We have not spoken in over a week, and I grow weary of standing in this room waiting for you to talk. You were about to say something about what you call the artiste, and then you simply stared blankly at the floor. Speak, already!
Simon: Please accept my most insincere apologies, Thomas. The pattern of this carpet suddenly fascinated me, and I grew transfixed. It is a nice carpet, you will agree.
Thomas: You are trying my patience. The artiste, please.
Simon: Very well. The commercial artist and the artiste have very little in common, save for one important thing: shockingly bad taste. The difference, however, lies in the audience. The commercial artist merely reflects the bad taste of the public, while the bad taste of the artiste appeals to a much narrower circle. Namely, the artiste appeals to overly educated critics and other artistes. The artiste deals in abstract theories which make no sense to the average viewer. His art is not meant to be enjoyed; rather it is meant to be appreciated. Anyone who lacks the formal education of the artiste or critic will find the artiste’s work bizarre, grotesque or both. This is why the artiste generally lives in fashionable squalor unless he is one of the few to receive a grant from the government to create his noxious emissions.
Thomas: Why on earth would anyone want to be an artiste? It sounds dreadful.
Simon: The artiste has received too much education and a good deal of indoctrination. He therefore thinks that he is working against society, or somehow making reflections on society that others are too stupid to see. He likes to be misunderstood by everyone except his circle. If you were to ask an artiste why he smeared pig feces on a canvas and hung it in a gallery, for instance, he would bury you in jargon about Lacanian narratives, the evils of capitalism and the plight of some group of oppressed people. Other artistes would nod in agreement, while critics would write long essays on the brilliance of the work. Everyone else would simply shake their heads in disgust or not even notice. Unlike the commercial artist, the artiste thrives on his obscurity. Underneath his faux populism and left-of-Josef Stalin politics, the artiste is a snob, albeit a poor one. It is his poverty and obscurity that affirm his own superiority over the ignorant masses that he claims to champion but secretly despises. Thus we see a strange reversal of the old order. In the past, the low culture such as skiffle and hillbilly music was created by poor people and ignored by everyone else. The high culture of fine art was often rather lucrative and the artist could often make a fine living at his craft. Today, the low culture is far more lucrative, so the artiste must hole up in his trashy ghetto digs and create minimalist dance numbers in protest of whatever today’s cause happens to be. The tragedy of the artiste is that nobody really cares.
Thomas: Can the artiste escape this squalor and become a commercial artist?
Simon: Yes, and the result is almost always disastrous either for the artiste or for society at large. An example of the former is Jack Kerouac, the latter, Allen Ginsberg. On the other hand, the commercial artist who tries to become an artiste is bound to turn into a laughingstock. Case in point: Madonna.
Thomas: I still do not see the point of all this.
Simon: Frankly, neither do I. It seems that the artiste is the product of a self-perpetuating community of narcissists who stand around and congratulate one another over their own lack of achievement. It is almost like government, only lacking power and money. It appears to me at the moment that the artiste is bound into a closed system that is intentionally inaccessible to most people. The artiste creates art for other artistes and for fawning art critics, both of whom revel in that which is appallingly ugly. I fear that until this circle is broken, the high arts will be confined to a cold mental tower and we shall be stuck with the saccharine drivel of Thomas Kinkade infecting the plastic arts.
Perhaps one day there will appear a Part IV, where Simon explicates the meaning, role and existence of the professional artist in America.