The Artist As Art

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Friends and I regularly run movies and videos for each other online, a wonderful tradition it only took a pandemic for us to devise. We recently watched The Horse’s Mouth, a film based on a well-regarded book, starring Alec Guinness as an artist who destroys as much as he creates. At first it seems to be a relatively standard comedy, but as I sat with it, I felt it was more like Spinal Tap and similar movies – a comedy that hits close to reality. The artist Guinness portrays, Gully Jimson, is a a rambling storm of pathologies, who fascinates and repells at the same time – everyone seems to have a radically different opinion of the man.

The Artist As A Loutish Rorschach Blot as you will.

As Serdar, who introduced me to the film, noted, there doesn’t seem to be a market for stories of working artists. We seem to like our films to be about people who are wild or crazy. We may often see them as offensive like Mr. Jimson, but ultimately there’s something about our culture that accepts artists as talented a-holes. In the film, Mr. Jimson at best does a month in jail for threats, but is somehow accepted despite the fact one may question if his art is worth putting up with him.

But when we step back, our lives often contain many workman like artists and creators. We just pay attention to the annoying ones, and as they consume mental space, we forget everyone not being a bipedial emotional disaster. For every musical star posturing in their psychopathic delusions, I can easily think of ten of more talent and less need for treatment. Why do we ignore this?

First, I think that this is part of the Great Man theory that has infected our culture. We want to believe in a rule-breaking Ultratalent who transcends all boundaries to create great art. Certainly encouraging that viewpoint has fueled the rise of many artists and creatives and leaders, as well as the fall that always seems to come later. We create the idea of a Great Man.

Second, we are envious even if we may not admit it. We wish we were that person, who breaks rules and is awarded fame and money and sex and places in a museum. We want to believe it, so we both encourage it in others and feed the media our demands. We create the idea that maybe we can be like that – and should be.

Third, we believe each creator is unique and thus uniquely valuable. It is true everyone is unique, but that doesn’t mean there is superior value in that uniqueness. Because we may assume some ranting business leader is somehow unique, we assume he must be special. Sometime one is merely uniquely annoying. Yet we create the idea of value.

Fourth, we are distracted by spectacle. A posturing performer, an artist leaping atop a table and yelling at a convention, a start-up king burning millions gets attention. We want to enjoy the show, and writers and moviemakers will deliver that. We’ll create an interest in showing our dreams on sreen.

In the end, the reason we get these figures in media is we want them. Sadly, it means we miss out on the fascinating figures who may have not been drug off into rehab or melted down publicy. This is one of the reasons I adore movies and documentaries that go behind the scenes and into the less known – because often there’s far more there than a strutting rooster of a performer.

We get stories of these pathological artists as we created the delusions and the demand.

This is why, ultimately, The Horse’s Mouth fascinates me. This annoying, obsessive man (and a few others as bad as he) is a decent and passionate artist. But people worship him, or want his art, or tolerate him, believing there is something there. But is he worth it?

That’s probably the question, but except for one or two characters, Gully is surrounded by artists who’ve created their own idea of him.

Steven Savage