An Artist’s Life is a Function of History

Kathe Kollwitz: Germany's Children Are Starving

An Artist’s Life is a Function of History

An artist’s life is not just a biography of a particular person, or a set of guidelines to follow if one would like to be an artist. The degree of success that an artist enjoys is registered in the books of history, not in the gallery accountant’s ledger.

In modern times, art is sometimes seen as a branch of entertainment, or the cultivation of the means of “self-expression,” but art has long been heralded as the very soul of a culture that forms a bridge between generations so that we don’t lose sight of the meaning of the human spirit.

Percy Shelly proclaimed poets to be the unseen legislators of the world.

John F. Kennedy, in his speech at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College in 1963 spoke of the role of the artist: “The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover’s quarrel with the world. . . .”

The German poet Friedrich Schiller (a great supporter of the American Constitution) said in 1795 ”No doubt the artist is the child of his time; but woe to him if he is also its disciple, or even its favorite.”  

Kathe Kollwitz: Self Portrait with Hand on Brow

An artist’s life is a mission to achieve immortality, not in the sense of a silly vampire story, but in the sense of aiding in the progression of justice throughout the history of mankind. An artist is the one who provides the vision for the public to be able to see what it could not see before, and to question what it was not allowed to question before. An artist also has the responsibility to discern truth, so that the forms he utilizes are based on rock and not on sand.

Although art critics are useful in the stream of art as a business, and though the degree of success in an artist’s lifetime determines, to a point, the extent to which an artist is allowed to produce, there is an element of stark and irrefutable reality in the legacy of an artist. His complete work will determine the effect he has on the conscience and consciousness of a nation and an era. His competence will be judged not only as technical skill and ability to convey his own message, but on the sustainability of the content of that message, as well.

An artist’s life will be affected by the trouble he causes, as well as by the amount of pictures he sells. The sensitivity and perception of an artist will be judged by time, and the authenticity of his statement will win or lose by the judgement of later generations. 

The creative community has always challenged social norms, and nurtured differences, but it is not innovation or marketing that stands the test of time. It is not mass appeal or catchy technique that will promote the author, the poet, the sculptor, the film-maker, or the painter onto that pedestal that will be visible over hundreds or thousands of years.

Civilization hungers for the artist’s wares. The vision to know who has the right stuff for eternal consumption is a parlor game in the present, but the real contest is waged on a broader field. An artist consolidates his life into his mind, his body, and his instincts in service of the future.

Contact us for a continuing dialogue of the artistic process, as we discuss and evaluate the participants from the perspective of an exciting and vibrant arena. 

Images: Kathe Kollwitz (top image: detail – “Germany’s Children Are Starving”, bottom image: “Self-Portrait with Hand on Brow”)

19 thoughts on “An Artist’s Life is a Function of History

  1. Absolutely—all artists/writers/performers create history, their work is a reflection of the entirely of themselves and their culture. Making and Saving art should be of the highest priority. I am proud to be a part of the tradition!

  2. Overall I agree with this, but wish you would have included a few ‘hers’ and ‘shes.’ It makes it seem that only male artists will leave a legacy.

    • Thanks, Barbara. I definitely agree. Next time I get an article from a writer without “she” or “her” included, I will make the necessary edits.

      • yes, we reflect the time, we create the time, by taking what is going on and expressing it in such a way that the ordinary person can understand it better and run with it. I also see that a truly great artist stands on his/her own, but the rest of us have relevance too. As part of a jigsaw puzzle, we all fit together in a mosaic, each little bit contributing to the greater picture.

  3. What a superb article. I agree with every word. Very glad too to see Kathe Kollwitz illustrating the point too.

  4. There was a discussion before on whats beauty in art. This is it. Or is beauty important in making art. Yes. The beauty of art is the message behind the art. This art speaks volume. I love when an artist such as this one are able to deliver meaningful message via their work. Well done.

  5. The more I make art, the more I realize that it’s my personal scream. I’m lifting my leg and making my mark. (Maybe that’s a male thing?) But I’m not out to change the world, and I’m not trying to change anyone. I just keep challenging myself to create bolder and better art that makers my proud I did it, and then I might look for a little validation and connection with like-minded souls who might like it. I don’t know if my legacy will be important to folks 100 or 200 years from now. I just know that I’m committed to moving ever forward. Admittedly it’s a lonely endeavor, and you have to make up the rules as you go along, but every once in a while, I can turn around and look at the trail I’ve left. And then sometimes… not that often, but sometimes, I’ll catch someone admiring the fruits of my labor, and it gives me a lift and the encouragement to continue on your journey. I believe it’s the current journey that should be important. The ultimate destination is out of our control and is always TBD.

    • Very important comment, Allan. I’m like you. I’m more in interested in the journey and development of my work…and if I get an audience who sees something of value in my personal journey, it gives me much pleasure.

  6. Just got this person’s input fairly recently
    : “What is art in the final analysis? Art is the shining forth of one’s interiority.” – Mu Xin, Chinese poet, painter, writer, 1917-2011

  7. This is an interesting group of comments. And I particularly love your choices of Kathe Kollwitz’s work. Thanks.

  8. I did love the article, as it signifies and dignifies art, which is universally important to us all as a culture and human beings but also overlooked and taken for granted by many.

  9. Good article – yes, we must bring forth the new in the experience of being, and we do this in the context of our time here, therefore within the context of history. As we move forward, it is all intertwined. Sometimes we are part of what is moving things forward, establishing, then, a new context.

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