The Myth of the Solitary Artist

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Isaac Newton, in a letter to Robert Hooke

The idea of the solitary, isolated artistic genius is a myth.

Consider the following two paintings about the the same subject, the Rape of the Sabine woman.

Jacques-Louis David: The Intervention of the Sabine Women - Louvre
Jacques-Louis David: The Intervention of the Sabine Women
Picasso: Rape of the Sabine Women - Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Picasso – Rape of the Sabine Women

David belonged to the moralistic, classical painting tradition. This painting, in fact, was an apology for being a propagandist for the French Reign of Terror. He depicts the moment where Hersilia places herself between her father, the leader of the Sabines, and her husband, the leader of the Romans. She leads the Sabine woman in appealing, even commanding, the warriors on both sides not to remove a wife from her husband, or a mother from her children.

Note the balanced composition, the use of color and light to put the focus on Hersilia. Look at the more prominent colors used to emphasize the women who are protecting, or carrying away the children. The mass of men, irrespective of which side they are on, are an almost uniform mass of the same fleshy tone. A moralistic, or didactic message was important for the work of art. One hopes that the disaster will be avoided.

Three different traditions flowed into Picasso – Cezanne, Seurat, and Rousseau. Picasso used color to create a sculpture-like depth rising out of a flat perspective. Tatius and Romulus are there, one with spear, one with a sword as is David’s painting, but with no intermediary. The women are helpless bystanders to a slaughter. We have a collage of twisted figures. The use of light and shade is almost absent.

Despite the fact that Picasso used the painting by Jacques-Louis David as part of his research for his own painting, the different artistic traditions produced different results. An emotional, primitive, feeling for the horror of war emerges, a very different emotion than the other painting. The twisted beings give rise to tormented feelings.

Artists are influenced by their artistic traditions. Where do those traditions come from? Their teachers, their reading, their contemporaries, the art they see, the art they read about. When Picasso saw the primitive masks at Trocadero, a tributary of another tradition flowed into the Western artistic tradition. Artists, steal, copy, find, discover, react, emulate, and synthesize. The problems they focus on are technical (line, color, form), technological (paper types available, colors available, tools available (brushes, knives, etc.), and intellectual (their attitudes towards the world).

Art is what artists do.

The current Broadway theater provides a contemporary example.

Joel Eastwood and Erik Hinton wrote an algorithm to analyze the rhythmic patterns  Lin-Manuel Miranda used in writing Hamilton. Among their insights are showing how the patterns used appear in Lauryn Hill, Gilbert and Sullivan, Big Pun, and Rakim. Many of these patterns were inherited from poetry.

Just as the idea of the solitary inventor is a myth, so is the idea of a solitary artist. Each reacts to what has come before them, and what is around them.  Even Philo Farnsworth, or the Le Douanier Rousseau are not exceptions.

Artists, like inventors, may have fostered this myth because it boosts their egos, or increases their influence and sales. Hagiography is a more dramatic telling of the story of art for the public.

Like art itself, this myth is a lie.

2 thoughts on “The Myth of the Solitary Artist

  1. This is particularly true of the performing arts, where no one’s creation is complete without the creations of others. The dance or play needs the music, the costumes, the sets, and the lights, to be complete. None of the elements are meant to stand alone.

    • As you insightfully point out, art is an ecosystem.

      As an ecosystem, we tend to attribute greatness to the “keystone specie” – composer/choreographer/painter/sculptor – and ignore all the other participants. In the performing arts the musicians/dancers often get their contemporary due, but history often forgets them.

      I only wish we could get people to understand that art is about everybody’s reaction to the totality of all the participants and their techniques, and not about abstraction or intellectuality.

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