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Brief essay of the month, August 2006

The Absolute Artist
(from Studio Notes, July 2006)


July 9, 2006.
Lac Ouaureau, morning

An essay on Catherine Soussloff’s “The Absolute Artist” and The Lie of Life.
By “historiography” I think Soussloff means a history of the writing of history, applying all current sociological and linguistic theories to the interpretation of the original texts as well as to the original texts’ uses of their original sources, and then applying those same theories and methods of interpretation to those original sources themselves. (She does not note that an infinite regression is a progression to the absurd). In “The Absolute Artist,” this results in the reduction of the historical texts of art history to the anecdotes comprising their raw material, and then the reduction of the anecdotes to their own formal structure: a narrative with a focal point—a human being in a specified moment of action in time—a figure with a ground, a “heroization,” (raising one above all others), and the creation of the myth of the artist.

There are many myths and many myth structures, all with the common characteristic of an essential ambivalence of fiction/fact, falsification/reality. In this context, the Absolute Artist is shown to be the mythic product of Florentine nationalism in Dante’s “correction” of the Florentine idiom subsequently to be proclaimed by the Florentines as the “corrected” Italian for all Italians, and in Brunelleschi’s “correction” of the representation of visual reality (invention of vanishing point perspective) then proclaimed to be the “correct” representation of visual reality for all of Europe.

The description of these super-human achievements—culture-making “heroic services to society”—have set the example for art historical writing since, including the conflation of the artist and the art object. The artist’s mythic status makes the object “magical,” the viewer’s “magical” response to the object makes the artist-maker “magical,” and so as the circle closes in our commodified society, the price goes up—the magic of money in the broader social world is fed back into the worlds of academic art history, the museum and the art world and then back into society itself... the perfect and perfectly invisible self-aggrandizing feed-back loop.

Then, having established the artist-hero myth (the “Absolute Artist”) at the foundations of art history in the West, Soussloff (pp112-136) goes on to discuss how it is manifest in different periods of Western Art History, with particular reference to Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood. She places Freud’s work in a series of early 20th C. Viennese art historical studies, showing how Freud sets up Leonardo as artist-physician-priest[1] (mythic hero extreme)—but neglecting to make much note that Freud’s own “counter transference” of the role to himself was his primary motivation to write of Leonardo. Or, as she quotes Freud at the beginning of the Leonardo text, “…bear in mind that…in many cases [biographers] have chosen their hero as the subject of their studies because—for reasons of their personal emotional life—they have felt a special emotional affection for him from the very first. They then devote their energies at the task…of enrolling the great man among the class of their infantile models—at reviving in him, perhaps, the child’s idea of his father…That they should do this is regrettable, for they therefore sacrifice truth to illusion…”


Well, where does that leave me—an artist formed in the late 1940’s by artists themselves formed in the 1910’s-20’s, a person whose childhood and adolescence were in a milieu which severely derogated his intellectual and sensory strengths, laid upon his childhood sexuality a massive weight of guilt, and upon his body-type a daily dose of ridicule?

For such a person, the artist-hero, in the “spiritual,” artist-priest-physician mode[2], would be the only available path for the establishment of personhood… or, for a goal of life as “Storm the walls of Heaven, Dance on the parapets of Infinity, Fly the shining skies of Infinity.”[3] And for that goal I have lived my artist-life this whole half-century and more, while living my life in the world, the way of making a living, by working to build a world where others like me could live their dreams like I have tried to live mine.


Now, however, near the ending of my life of working in the world—and soon enough to come at some time not yet known will be the end of my artist’s life as well—what does it mean to learn that all I have done for more than fifty years has been to live a myth in order to escape the anonymity of lower middle class suburbia? What does it mean to learn that I have lived “the lie of life” of the artist-hero as “artist-priest-healer,” the physician to culture, to society? When I learned of the lie of life in late 19th C. literature (and in Somerset Maugham’s early 20th C. Of Human Bondage), I learned the answer to revelation of the lie of life was death comes quickly to the liar.

Well, for me having lived already more than half a century in the lie of life of the artist-hero as physician to culture and society (that’s what all my years at SFAI have always been), why, in the third, the old age segment of life, why stop now?

With no lie to look up to (“Storm the heights of Heaven”), all we see is down to “…loss, dust and death.” Sure, the end is dark; but break it through to light. Light’s real, too.

[1]Derived from Otto Rank: . Soussloff: (p121) “Rank explicitly equates the artist-actor with the [priest turned into] physician-analyst…In the conclusion to the book on the artist, Rank compares the artist to Moses ‘founder of religion’: ‘But as the ‘founder of religion was overcome, so the artist must be overcome also, he must become the physician; the creative ones become healing-artists, and the recipients become neurotics; for in that way only can people arrive at ‘consciousness’: the neurosis is the basis of the general widening of consciousness.’ Rank’s conflation of artist, physician and analyst makes the physician-analyst a healer of culture and humanity.

[2] It’s not as if Rank and Freud thought of it first. Remember Shelley’s Defense of Poetry and “the poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the race.”

[3] See Studio Notes, June 22, 2006.