Becoming Unreal: The Artist’s Duty in a World of Illusions

Art is the lie that tells the truth.


Showbiz Postures: The Grammar of Celebrity

Part of what makes an artist (read: artist/entertainer) different, part of what makes him an artist and not a normal person is that he has an audience. This is true especially when the artist becomes an icon or a celebrity, present where- and whenever his work is consumed. The icon accrues meaning and symbolic value from those who invest him with their hopes, dreams, and suppositions about who/what he is. His being, then, is dynamic and amounts to an unfixed sum of all that everyone brings to him.

Every engagement between the artist and his audience highlights the unbridgeable gap between creator and consumer. The artist may sometimes communicate with or “touch” his audience, but it’s usually an illusion. Despite any apparent communion between them, the artist and his audience are estranged by the privilege that defines the artist’s life. His activities, his work product, his apartness are the foundation of the wall separating transmission and reception. The audience’s relationship with the artist and his work is vicarious.

At the crux of the artist/audience dialectic, more than any notion of pseudo-intimacy, is how the audience elevates the artist, how it magnifies his scale and makes his life extraordinary. The artist in turn inhabits the thoughts and dreams of his audience. This is what it means to be “larger than life.”

The artist’s natural aloofness from his audience and the fact that this same audience is the source of his power creates a basic tension. The artist has followers, but whether and where he chooses to lead them is ambiguous. This raises questions: What is the artist’s purpose, his duty? What “social good” can art accomplish, beyond aesthetic pleasure or passive critique? How does the artist, if at all, transcend mere culture?

In a world pervaded by intricate fictions at all levels of exchange: interpersonal, official, commercial; and defined by growing monopolies on experience — via received language, media conglomerates, and the technology that’s behind everything — the best art reveals itself to be honest, at least, if not morally superior. That's because artists have no need to disguise their masquerade; their artifice is upfront, as opposed to the sanctioned world where artifice wears the garb of truth. The artist’s brand of authentic unreality, rooted in his traditional role as the alien within and his natural aversion to official reality, can be a vital force. When it aspires to something beyond diversion, art can be a corrective or at least suggest an alternative to certain malignant and/or wrongheaded values and ideologies.

The savvy artist, who wishes to put his work in the service of progress and enlightenment, soon finds that it is beyond his capacity to illuminate the murky dreamscape that has become the “real world.” In this atmosphere, “the matrix,” creative endeavors, well-orchestrated opposition, the combined power of every artist — an impossibility besides — could never hope to counter the forces of illusion on their own terms.

This obvious imbalance is lost on some, most glaringly those cadres of celebrities who venture into politics or “good works” and try to assert their moral authority. The reason for this is clear: when artists get involved in civic affairs they abandon the very qualities that make them who they are. As earnest, virtuous citizens or would-be pundits they cast a pale shadow over the culture, versus their otherwise luminous (or garish) presence. Artists who feel compelled to do good works and respond to the world at large fail to see that the genuine good of which they’re capable stems from their real work. This work, even the crassest, most candy-coated variety, does not merely entertain and provide diversion, but also expands the kingdom of life, beyond the mundane. This is the promise of the artist’s gift, the manifestation of his vitality.

The artist in the realm of world affairs comes across as a fool, invariably, because what makes him potent, as an elevated spirit among his audience, is the fact that he is divorced from reality — above the crowd, beyond the fray. The audience welcomes this, adopting the artist as a surrogate for the unobtainable, expecting him to fulfill his role as a vehicle of artifice. This is the essence of their bond, because deep down the audience believes artifice provides the means to a higher truth.

With consensus reality becoming ever more illusory, the artist must keep pace and maintain a clear distance from this dubious condition. Becoming unreal then means becoming more genuine. For this there are many avenues available: satire, fantasy, abstraction; varieties of synthesis, and whatever else the imagination can muster.

Some artists are capable of putting their privileged lives in the service of higher aims, while retaining the mystique that sets them apart and makes their work vital. Artists achieve this — whether intentionally or by accident — because their work changes the audience; like the best art, it breeds awareness and heightens or transforms perspective.

The artist forges a deeper connection with his audience when they believe that he “lives his work” — being enmeshed in a constant cycle of creation; fashioning life and art into a distinct flow, a bold statement that invigorates their own beliefs. In such cases the artist is a living testament to possibility, a paragon of the way things can be.

The most profound, lasting way an artist can respond to the world is to sustain a regimen of life and work characterized by honesty, apartness, and ferocious discrimination. The artist must live as an antidote. This is how the artist nurtures his power and can best serve his audience. This is how art actually changes the world.