A list of feelings about artists and art


On the subject of beliefs about the death of art, the idea of art versus craft and (mostly) Werner Herzog, I’d like to share one of my favorite passages from Herzog on Herzog:

So you don’t subscribe to the belief that your films are in any way ‘art films’?

Absolutely not, they are no such thing. I dislike intensely even the concept of artists in this day and age. The last King of Egypt, King Farouk, completely obese in exile, wolfing one lamb leg after another, said something very beautiful: ‘There are no kings left in the world anymore, only the King of Hearts, the King of Diamonds, the King of Spades, and the King of Clubs.’ The whole concept of being an artist is also somehow outdated today. There is only one place left where you find artists: the circus. There you can find the trapeze artists , the jugglers, even the hunger artist. Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind; cinema comes from the country fair and the circus, not from art or academicism. I truly feel that in the world of the painter or novelist or film director there are no artists. This is a concept that belongs to earlier centuries, where there was such a thing as virtue and pistol duels at dawn with men in love, and damsels fainting on couches.*

I have feelings about this. I haven’t decided if they are mixed or not. The first feeling is that I want to agree with it because Werner Herzog said it and, well, I’m a pathetic fanboy. The second feeling is that the last bit about pistols at dawn feels a little squishy to me… but… I also don’t feel like the romanticism of that bit tracks well with the rest of the sentiments and, Herzog being Herzog, I have trouble reading any nostalgia into it other than perhaps something like: “things have always been horrible and always will be horrible, but they will be differently so” (by which I basically mean that if the excerpted text means something different when you read it with Herzog’s voice in your head than when you don’t).

And it’s the constant element (everything was always horrible) rather than the evolutionary one (art was once a thing and it is no longer a thing) that reminds of something I spend a lot of time thinking about re: Art or Not Art. Namely: when I read complainy items about… well, musicians mostly… they seem to think that it is some kind of tragedy or even more annoyingly: newsworthy that they can’t make a living making music. But the thing is, some musicians can make money making music and there are very very few of them and it’s my sense that this was always the case – most musicians always couldn’t make money making music and had to do other things for socks & underwear &c.

So basically, if you like a lot of music and if you like obscure music, then plenty of your favorite musicians couldn’t make money being musicians for any extended period of time – in the sense that Metallica or Carole King could make money being musicians – and if you want to be like your favorite obscure band it’s just gonna be the case that you aren’t going to make enough money to live on for a very long time. Of course, if you like music (ok even maybe a lot of music) and the music you like is made by people who make money making music then the important thing to remember is that you the music you like is made by a tiny fraction of the population and being a musician is not really a viable career choice.

If you are realistic, then, and understand that being a professional musician means playing Greensleeves a lot of times for restaurant patrons (or similar), then by all means. But my point is that people downloading songs for free is not going to be what prevents you from being a rock star. What prevents you from being a rock star is the same thing that prevents me from being a major league baseball player. And there’s nothing really wrong with that. Writers do this too. I think this is what we were talking about? And what I mean by that is the I think it’s right of Doree Shafrir to point out that she is basically playing Greensleeves over and over again (in the cosmic sense) and I don’t really understand what that takes.

So what does it mean to be an artist? I find the Subway Sandwich Artist really informative to the Herzogian conception of the artist: namely that when everyone is an artist, then nothing is art. Or, explicated: when everyone is an artist, then everything is art, then art is nothing, then nothing is art. In other words, Art is meaningless and it becomes unimportant whether something is Art (because it is) but rather whether something is a sandwich or a painting or needlepoint or a song or sex or murder or steamed milk. There’s no particular value in calling it Art or Craft, I think, so much as there is a value in naming things what they are in such a way that words have some kind of meaning. Am I wrong?

Your friend,

*The whole book is like this. It is wonderful beyond wonderful.

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  • […] You correctly give Ms. Shafrir’s post a more generous reading than I did. You see her as calling out people who are obnoxious and patronizing about her career, which entails Work, like Careers do. I saw it as  her calling out people for becoming lawyers, which, heyyyyyyyyy, I’m right here, on the same internet. I can hear you. […]

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