By William Markiewicz
Some time ago a CBC TV program presented a Canadian poet who called on creators to take their inspiration from daily life -- work, shopping, etc. He maintained that otherwise "People in the future will believe we passed our lives in idleness." I don't remember his name because I didn't hear the broadcast myself. I said to Nikole, who had told me about this poet: "He simply propagates the same Social Realism that went bankrupt in the Communist countries. Noone should dictate subject or form to the creator. The creator should agree first of all with himself so he creates first for himself. If he's really inspired, his work will find its universal audience." She replied, rightly, that the old masters created their masterpieces to order and didn't isolate themselves from society; on the contrary, they felt themselves an integral part of it.
It's true that the old masters were not individualists in the modern sense of the word. Nevertheless, terms like "individualism" don't come from the domain of art but from psychology which is a relatively recent branch of science. The artists of the past considered themselves more craftsmen than artists and had high regard for the skills of craftsmanship. The lifestyles of the past didn't permit the development of advanced individualism. People needed one another and lived in dense communities. To be an individualist one had to be a hermit. In our times, informatics and technology have made people quite independent of each other. Thanks to automation, computers, etc. one can study and work in solitude. If this trend continues people will see each other only when they desire it and mainly for social reasons. So, at present more than ever, there is a place for individualist creators because they express our times as the old creators expressed theirs. We also have to admit that individualism has not brought only the good; for instance it killed respect for craft skills, often to the detriment of art itself.
"Alright," said Nikole, "but does everybody today have to be an individualist? What if somebody, socially oriented, wants to work to order or for an ideology? Like the old masters who worked for religion for example. What's the difference between religion and ideology?"
I do appreciate work to order, (not to be confounded with ideological and commercial art) because it signifies service and so it has a social content. And as to the difference between religion and ideology, it must be quite big if the religious artists have always exceeded the ideological ones in number and in quality. Religion is charged with poetic symbolism while ideology is cold, philosophical. Art and poetry always express tension, which awakes. For this reason there will always be creativity inspired by religion, rebellion, surrealism, eroticism, etc ... and it will always be at the antipode of philosophy. Only two Communist creators remain in my memory: Mayakovsky and Ferdinand Leger. Both of them, though, were expressionists and not Social Realists, otherwise they wouldn't remain in anybody's memory. Mayakovsky's muse glided on the heights of eternal protest, while Ferdinand Leger in his industrial and geometrical universe prefigured the future world of high technology.
Ideological art and commercial art belong to the same category: both are pseudo-arts, because based on cold calculation which boils down to the antithesis of inspiration. Contrary to art to order, which serves, commercial art tries to guess what the customer may desire, while ideological art tries to impose on people what they should wish and how they should think. Both, then, are looking for a recipe which they will not find because there is not and there never will be art from a recipe.
OK, let's avoid extreme opinions; there is such a thing as excellent commercial art. But we must keep some distance between it and art "tout court." Commercial art is a lesser art, halfway between art and craft. Therefore good commercial art must be technically irreproachable, a requirement that doesn't apply too strongly to art.
"But," pursued Nikole, "didn't religious art try to impose on people what they should wish and think? Wasn't it always in style to use art to teach people values, how to live, to be subservient? Why is religious art different from Social Realism? Wasn't the church the state in the days when the religious painters were at their peak?"
Of course religion can become political, so the art expressing it becomes commercial. Eroticism can be commercial, so the art expressing it becomes pornography. Even rebellion can become a caricature of itself with kitschy art as its expression. I was talking about authentic religion, rebellion, eroticism, in contrast to politics or any other profit oriented policy or philosophy like marketing, trading, etc.
At this point the conversation ended.