Towards the Collaborative: Deconstructing the Idea of the Artistic Genius

In Western discourses, the idea of artistic genius is almost inextricably intertwined with the notion of art. When we learn to appreciate a piece of art, we are told at the same time to appreciate its author, the artist. Is it because the art cannot exist without the artist, or rather because the art discourse has been so deeply shaped by artist-centric frameworks that we cannot even conceive of the art without the artist?

Like many arts disciplines, art history has undergone radical changes and has opened itself up for revisionism in conjunction with the rise of feminism, poststructuralism and other intellectual movements. Nevertheless, the idea of the artistic genius has permeated the historiography of artistic discourses. This is predominantly highlighted by the biographical methodology of art history, in which the details of the artist’s life and personality are analysed as means to understand their oeuvre. Psychoanalysis is another art history methodology which delves deeper into the psyche of the artist in order to explain why their art looks the way it does. From Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists (1568) to E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1950), the obsession with the artistic genius as a unique individual remained a constant undercurrent in mainstream discourses surrounding art.

Not only is that true of the art history discourse itself, but the same can be said about the art market and art institutions discourses, as they compete for the attention of their audiences. In the competitive contemporary art climate, marketing has created zealous followings to the artistic persona and their bigger-than-life attitudes, effectively making them akin to pop culture celebrities. We are not just obsessed with the idea of the artistic genius, but also with what they wear, how they talk, who they are seen with and most importantly, how much their art sells. Novelty sells, and the bigger-than-life artistic persona arguably sells even more. Scandals, stunts and intrigues create the kind of buzz and attention an artwork needs to go up in value. This is not a new game to artists and dealers, but it is one which has worked for many arguably since the Viennese Secessions. We speak about works of art by the name of the artist — Banksy’s name is ironically what makes his art so financially successful despite his intended anonymity. In spite of our awareness of the humanity of artists behind their constructed personae, we still put them on a pedestal nonetheless.

What if the idea of an artistic genius is a social-cultural construct embedded in a modern/post-modern polemics in which the artistic equates with the divine? As our societies became more secularised, cultural happenings came to replace the religious, and art museums instead of churches became places for sublime and spiritual experiences that transcend the mundane. As a result, the artistic personae came to be seen as sacred icons. It becomes impossible to not mystify the artists themselves when the art audiences as well as art institution semantics willingly or intentionally attach transcendentally divine values to art. We believe that if the art speaks to us, it must be coming directly from its creator, who alone possess the unique power to transmit such sublime spirituality.

As indicated previously, the artist, the art, and the art audiences are all intricately connected via various social relations within the art world. From an anthropological point of view, according to Alfred Gell, artworks mediate social agency, whereby the intentions of the art agent are inferred upon the art patient. When we think of the artist as the agent, and ourselves as the receiving patient or recipient, that is when artwork (index) and subject of representation (prototype) can impose divine or sublime inferences on us, as we gaze into a Picasso or a Van Gogh. However, Gell illustrates a much more complex interplay of social agencies between artist, index, prototype and recipient, all of which can be either agent or patient. We don’t need to understand all these concepts, which can be convoluted at times, in order to see the intricate social relations that discursively frame the production, dissemination and reception of a piece of art.

Gell’s prominent Art Nexus diagram is controversial and hotly debated, but it opens up a crack in the constructed idea of the artistic genius. It shows that the artist is not a singular entity, but a piece of a puzzle in an intertwined network of social agents. It is not only the artists who speak to us, but also the artwork’s materiality, host museum, patrons, contexts and surrounding discourses. It also prompts us to question the reality of art and labor — the production of an artwork is being gradually more diversified, where the efforts of apprentices, technicians, and studio workers combine in order to actualise a piece of work. Furthermore, in between the artist as source of creation and the audience as consumer-recipient, there are also many other art world agents working to put the display of an artwork in its exhibiting environment.

Picasso’s genius does not lie entirely in his art, but also in the ways in which his artwork can mobilise various social agents, by moving their mind and soul via an intricately intertwined network of people, relations, discourses and contexts. We can choose to speak about the artist when viewing a work of art – after all, we all seek that intimate yet transcendental experiences when we see an artwork up close. But perhaps it is also time to appreciate art not merely as the production of an individual, but as a collaborative effort.

An art world with fewer geniuses and more collectives might be increasingly important in our time. Last year in 2019, the Turner Prize award was shared by all three shortlisted artists by the request of the judges for more ‘commonality, multiplicity and solidarity’. This year, ten artists shared the bursaries given by the prestigious art accolade as much needed support in light of the pandemic. Perhaps that is a future we need: all-for-one, not one-for-all.

[Nini Huang, she/her]

[Image Credit: Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez]

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