What is the artist's role in difficult times?

Zbigniew Jan Mańkowski

Then he asked the children to write down three things in their notebooks
which might help than some day if they didnt forget them.
Here they are:
 1. Each of our five senses contains an art.
 2. In questions of art great secrecy must be observed.
 3. The artist must catch every scrap of wind.
 (L. Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet. Balthazar)



Durrell's many pages paint an idealistic picture of an artist who, through extraordinary forms, creates still new and unrecognised landscapes of human minds and hearts. Such a view of the artist is probably still valid only among amateurs and dilettantes, entangled in aspects of art seen through the prism of magic, metaphysics, spirit, and difference; art observed in the context of “truly existing everyday life, and differences extracted from what is known and already insufficient. In this perspective, art permeates life, and takes its origin from it, but is not life; it becomes something else, something special a kind of distillate of life and ideas. It has to be admitted that although the tempting concept of Durrells artist has become outmoded with the changes in the world of art, many of its promises, desires, and hopes have survived in the minds of contemporary, increasingly conscious, beholders.


“sharing the perceivable


Durrells artist lived in a time which many would call “the rightly bygone past. From the perspective of the development of thought about art and the artist, it could be called a time of the slow birth of divergences between what was sensual and what became art; a time of “dividing the perceptible, a time of “aesthetics and politics, as Jacques Rancière put it[1]. His perspective built a clear caesura between past and present, dictating basically everything in the art world. From now on, there will only be divisions and disagreements over one chosen vision of the artist and art. Now the “divided image of Visibility will be transformed by numerous “produced images of the Perceptible. In such a perspective, the artist is already an active participant in the social process, and his work is the construction of artistic visions which go beyond pure aesthetics and art. And we know not only from the philosopher's texts that since the symptomatic split, the artists artistic engagement has gone beyond sensuality, and a “scrap of wind as Durrell saw it and is fulfilled in “aesthetic régimes and “the politics of aesthetics, and “that a battle fought yesterday over the promises of emancipation and the illusions and disillusions of history continues today on aesthetic terrain[2].


This change in the distribution/division of the Visibility (of the perceptible world), occurring gradually and slowly, was noticed and registered by the most-astute observers of artistic life, aware of the declining and changing significance of art. Witold Gombrowicz noted in his diary entry from 1962.


“Too much. Everyone paints. Why has art ceased to be difficult, why has some triumph of mediocrity been realised in our times, thanks to which painting has become easy, accessible to just anyone, students, children, pensioners, everyone (...) and what is more, these paintings ‘are not so bad at all[3].


Czesław Miłosz, in turn, in his text entitled O twórcach [On Creators] from 1975, in order to illustrate the condition of art and the artist, compared the artist to a hunter, and art to hunting[4]. He noted that the hunt was over, the game had been hunted down (“The hare is no more), and that for centuries it had been the “t h e  s u b s t a n c e   o f  m a n  which had been exhausted. Today, we can understand this statement by relating it to the “death of man declared in turn at that time[5]. So, what are artists hunting now? What they are left with is “the substitute game, “artificial hares, or to put it simply, “free experimentation, which, as there is no longer a hare, leads them to be completely uncommunicative, standing on their heads, pretending to be lizards, etc.[6]. Much later, John M. Coetzee made an equally interesting remark. “Something happened, it seems to me, in the late 1970s or early 1980s, as a result of which the arts yielded up their leading role in our inner life[7].


It is worth adding to this short selection of testimonies to the transformations of the condition of art and the artist a quote by the art philosopher Wiesław Juszczak, who bitterly states that an artist today is called someone who has a diploma from an art school, or who exhibits his or her works in galleries, that judgments about art contain a lot of “thoughtlessness; and criticism appears, and whose “competence escapes evaluation. Furthermore, Juszczak states “Today's culture has made art a marginal phenomenon, and what passes for art mostly pretends to be it[8].


The above remarks testify to the conflict of arguments and interests personal, private, individual and collective permeating the broadly understood world of art. On the one hand, this conflict results from ideological and philosophical implications influencing art and its creators, and on the other hand, it is a conflict of emerging perspectives and creative strategies, as well as artistic and aesthetic policies, which are consumed by the realm of multiplicity. Today's art is also alive with the conflict of expectations, artistic choices, and aesthetic rationales. The consequences of this conflict can be seen especially when the artistic taste/reason can neither see nor foresee the consequences of the limits of its own action. The most painful is sometimes the loneliness of the artist, and the loneliness of his or her creations[9].


between recognition and insignificance


There is one more consequence of a more-open and general nature, resulting from the above, concerning the functioning and life of the artist and art in social reception; it concerns the place of the artist and art between social recognition and social insignificance. I do not think that art and the artist have become socially marginal, as Wiesław Juszczak claims. I see the place of the artist and art in the social context through the prism of their dangerous with regard to their achievements and their social reception entanglement in a game which is difficult to win, a game which runs between the need for the social recognition of what the artist produces and considers art, and the threat of the rejection of his or her artistic repertoire of and its being considered insignificant. We live in a culture of recognition, a culture of the need for the mutual social recognition of ourselves, our values, and what we consider artistically valuable or aesthetically noteworthy.


In the nascent modernity, it was Hegel who built the theoretical foundations of social recognition in the sphere which is the State. In practice, art institutions devote much energy to constructing social recognition for what they present, what they want to have recognised. We would like to believe that artists disseminate socially important works. But is this the case? In the realities of art, the presentation of insignificant things is commonplace. This has become the risk of our times. Perspicacious ironists say outright that we live in a broadly defined culture of insignificance. What is it? Milan Kundera dares to use an apt metaphor, and calls our condition, also in respect of art, a “festival of insignificance, which is the title of his latest novel. Roberto Calasso, in turn, sees insignificance in the secularised culture which surrounds us, in which the essence of life is replaced or dominated by rules and procedures, while the visible exteriors of images hide the emptiness of our lost desires. Therefore, in a culture of insignificance, it becomes increasingly difficult to create a good image[10].


How does this equally “wanted-unwanted insignificance manifest itself? In the art world, the culture of insignificance is a culture of excess, of overproduction, in which it is difficult to determine what is significant and what can create/receive recognition. The contemporary artist in an aesthetically and politically divided world is determined by the struggle for recognition and the game with insignificance; perhaps he or she is also defined by a certain poetically expressed truth: “But an excess of fullness imitates an excess of emptiness[11].


questions around the transformation of the artists condition


My research perspective is an attentive gaze, an “intuitive glance; it is guided by an attempt to understand the transformation of the condition of the artist and art at a time of social tensions, and the emergence of something new, which we do not fully understand. Some literally call this moment in history a time of “culture wars, media wars. Changes are constantly taking place in the status and condition of the artist, and the art of looking at the world and images is becoming increasingly difficult[12]. To the surprise of many, the long process of creating a work of art, established in history, has been replaced by thinking about it. Some art lovers have to accept with surprise a result which is difficult for them to accept the absence of the work as such. Besides, the calling to the artistic life is becoming increasingly professionalised. Today, it is mostly Doctors and Professors of art who teach young art students, and who become research and teaching staff at art schools, and art education has been integrated into a strictly academic model of education, in which art is supposed to be almost literally a science. And let us try to imagine Professor Pablo Picasso given his “non-scientific lifestyle. It would be rather difficult for contemporary art students to persevere in the Masters studio, and for the academy to maintain the standards of artistic and pedagogical activities.


Apart from professional artists with academic degrees, we will also encounter artists who are agents of social change, focusing their involvement on politics[13]. This is not a new issue it has been discussed for a long time, and it accentuates the ideological entanglement of art and the humanities, closer to social sciences, which in extreme cases manifests itself in the political indoctrination of these fields. “Long duration marked art with changes of styles or tendencies, later with the proliferation of “-isms, in turn leading to the development of a certain important function, which Talcott Parsons, referring to the social functioning of “free professions, called “disinterestedness, i.e. the recognition that creative work exists, and is accomplished, above private interests and personal benefits, and should be, by definition, a reality serving universal and common values[14].


Looking at the present scientification and politicisation of art, can we be sure that the established artistic “disinterestedness will exist and serve the people? Can art in its essence fulfil practical purposes? Are the decision-makers at least partly aware of the consequences of the questions which arise? And can the world of art be left to the rules of the free market? Especially seeing the particular social conditions of the production of artworks, in which it becomes a hybrid of artistic and scientific cognition, or is meant to be pure politics, or cannot be distinguished from life as such, being a mere object or a substitute for an idea, or, a socially difficult to bear and accept, merely pseudo-intellectual grimace?


In such a field of perceiving the development of art, it seems important to ask about the necessary and possible horizon of the contemporary artists education. Then another important question arises. Why does artistic education lack truly critical resistance to the dominant patterns of academic thinking and life? Even if they strike at the everyday creative sensitivity of students, or at the rare and priceless imagination born in the process of forging independence, of which Albert Einstein used to say that it was more important than knowledge?


strategies and patterns difficult to overcome


It may be assumed that teaching in art academies is to some extent consistent with the artistic pedagogy of Professors, and results from the noble intention of moulding new professionals, who will soon become specialist artists, and go out into the world to fulfil social-artistic commissions. This is the conviction behind the liberal meliorism (Latin: melior better) which is quite widespread today; a judgmental and optimistic attitude, which simply tells us to see people and the world as better than they actually are, or can be. Martha Nussbaum, very influential on the Western intellectual scene, succumbs to this otherwise-correct tendency by praising artistic teaching as being exceptionally well suited to the training of the imagination. This eminent scholar does not realise that the difficult art of imagination can be defeated in practice by the thinkers human frailty, or others simple cunning, and that instead of taking the trouble to forge it, the imagination will be replaced by play, or games which will realistically and efficiently feign it[15]. Friedrich Schiller rightly observed that art, while it could be “a paradigm of human fulfilment, can also draw people into various games of appearances especially those played for a just cause[16].


In such a perspective, one cannot overlook a kind of strategy (games) of survival, clearly apparent in the practices of artistic education in academies[17]. To begin with, I will draw your attention to “academic aestheticism, i.e. the convictions, accepted almost as dogmas, 1) that art is and must be conventionally aesthetic, or even hermetic in its open aestheticism; 2) that it is impossible to talk about it nor about tastes, which cannot and should not be discussed, because basically nothing can be said, nor anything known; and finally 3) that an artist makes living art when his or her works send shivers down the spine of the stunned beholders, or better when they bring them to their knees. Often in this strategy, which can be observed in vernissages, a canonical sentence is uttered, which, to make matters worse, is repeated like an aesthetic mantra by students in the theses defences of their achievements: “Everyone will find something for themselves in what you see. One would like to quote at this point the poem by Miłosz entitled Miłość [Love]: “Who serves best doesnt always understand. Simple artistic mantras can today clash with a painful truth which, although it values simple sentences, more often brings to life “contradictory aphorisms: “life without art is impossible life without art is possible. This is a proven strategy-game, dignified by the achievements of renowned artists, and promoting a subjectivist approach to beauty, clearly renouncing the seeking of transcendental beauty, which is an expression of the need for perfection or human attainment.


Unfortunately, this strategy also has other weaknesses: it has been heavily deconstructed over the last half-century by the tragedy of the experience of war and extermination, as Georg Steiner aptly puts it the grammar of nihilism, which at times manifests itself as ascetic aestheticism, at other times as the artistic tactics of the quietness and silence of the artist, who cannot speak, let alone express the nature of the truth of his or her experience[18]. Perhaps a much-more-serious sin as legitimately defined by Sławomir Marzec is the routine of artistic solutions which “can (...) pretend to be thinking and creative[19]. Creativity, by the way, is in this strategy inflected in all cases, so it often triumphs in the artistic finale as yet-another variety of aesthetic insignificance one must say this not without sadness.


An aesthetic strategy also has its tender spots: one of these is the desire of some of its representatives for artistic solutions to accentuate more the thematic threads; the other is the desire to include a greater measure of craftsmanship, and the dream of a return to the “new old Masters[20].


Contrary to the strategy outlined above, there is an increasingly present and dominant revolutionary-emancipatory strategy: the previous one was rather receptively hermetic, this one, on the other hand, is loud and spectacular, and involves artistic practices in the machinations of social change and hard politics; it is based on dynamics and the involvement of the beholder, who in the previous tactic rather remained a passive observer, while here he or she is drawn into transgressive (exceeding the existing visuality) or performative (forcing the perception of new areas) practices. This implied causing, changing of thinking, and Perceptibility, engender sometimes dramatic, at other times peculiar, forms of behaviour by the artist, most often towards his or her own body, sometimes borderline, dangerous for life and health. Everything for the revolution of our reality and the changing of our life, which is understood here as being alienated or subjected to oppression, and burdened with too much of the baggage of evolution, and thus oppressed in various ways by authority, which, unfortunately, has only one face, and only a bad one. The supporters and codifiers of this trend consider the following qualities invaluable: first, to arm art and the artist with the greatest-possible power of negation; the more negation, the better the art seems to be, and the artist becomes its perfect “black knight; and second as Susan Sontag writes “to make it u n a c c e p t a b l e   t o the audience.[21].


The weakness of the negationism of artistic and cultural activities in Western culture has been officially pointed out by an outstanding critic and Professor of art sciences, Camille Paglia, who assumes that (especially young) followers of the revolutionary trend in art do not understand what they are negating, at the same time, they are falling into a tendentious criticism dictated by the rules of correctness, which in fact has a negative impact on them, because it impoverishes their cognitive perspectives, since many culturally important matters elude them, and at the same time it gives them only an illusion and the appearance of critical thinking[22]. How can one engage in “fair criticism without knowing well, for example, literature, art history, mythology, or drama? It is also worth noting that while the early practices within this movement can be assessed, in the spirit of honest criticism, as cognitively inspiring, the later ones can lead to false interpretations of the world. And while the first strategy attempts to restore at all costs the Western temple of art which requires this, the second has the task of tearing it down and replacing it with an entirely new one.


the second dangerous tendency


There is a certain aura of pseudo-philosophising hovering over education in academia, which sometimes takes the form of risky conceptualism, assuming seemingly creative masks: that the artist can be a philosopher, even if only to procure an artistic hole in the wall, or to expose the intentionality of his or her work; even at the cost of a dangerous aesthetic minimalism, to which it seems as experts claim that mankind is still not grown-up enough, and still requires artistic signs referring it to the old aesthetic belief that, in order to live life to the full, mankind constantly needs some measure of harmony and beauty[23]. Alexis de Tocqueville has already argued, long ago examining democracy in America that people there find it difficult to theorise productively, as they care more about speed of action and ubiquitous functionality than about contemplation.


Apart from the above-mentioned artistic tinkering, there is a new, much-more-dangerous trend, which is invisible, but nevertheless very dangerous, a tendency which is liberal only in principle, and which could be called instrumentalism. On the surface, it seems democratic, because it is based on an even start, on equal access to resources and sources, and equal standards of requirements and procedures for achieving excellence. In fact, it forces young artists to live in a world in which reflexivity the basis of modernity is replaced by procedurality, and standards which justify almost everything. They favour quantitative achievements, because they are quantifiable, hiding even the desired qualitative perfection, which is difficult to measure. Methodologically, it builds a system of standardising studies, which at each stage creates a kind of scheme allegedly helpful and structured which can impinge on the image of the world, and on ones own work. There have always been procedures in history; now they have been brought with bureaucratic consistency to an almost computer-like precision. This scheme a kind of bureaucratic stamp teaches the usual academic respect, and acts as a reminder that a standard cannot be argued with, and must be met. In practice, standards and promotional procedures preserve passivity and ordinary human obedience, which can be reflected in the ossification of perception, and an increasingly schematic view of Perceptibility. This is why the sociologist Frank Furedi speaks of a “technocratic liberalism, turning artistic uniqueness into a caricature, in which what is human and free is reduced to the calculation of achievements[24]. Years ago, the eminent painter and educator Jacek Sempoliński wrote, as a warning about the fragile foundations of academic artistic pedagogy,nothing is ready, things are in progress and which can turn into a collection of unimportant certainties, insignificant from the point of view of creativity[25]. Open, responsible, evaluation must be nurtured in academia, especially when it is intruded on by a rightful sense of reckoning and a bureaucratic assessment of results.


closing, or synthetic considerations, on the need to think about art and the artist


I began my text with sentences on art and the artist, romantic in spirit, taken out of Lawrence Durrell's novel, and I am obliged to end it with a few common-sense phrases which could not fit into my necessarily abbreviated argument. From among the quoted themes setting the condition of the artist in the social context, and in accordance with the reality of the 21st century as we know it, the following premises deserve particular attention. First, it is necessary to transform and rebuild our thinking about art and the artist to let in at least some interdisciplinarity, especially the light of other arts Word, Music and Movement which can open the door to the “palace of Possibilities of creation. Second, it is already worth balancing paradigmatic avant-garde thinking, which emphasises progress, with rearguard thinking, which values the evolutionary sources of the creative act, so important for creation. The former dominated our model of the artist and art. Alain Touraine aptly points out “It is not the legs and arms that are failing: it is the head; that is, the way of representing oneself, the conception of the world, or, more precisely the dominant i n t e r p r e t a t i o n  d i s c o u r s e (...), the false consciousness has taken a long-term hold on all thought...[26] Third, it is time to look at art and the artist in the context of social resonance, in which its main players will count the artist as a reflective subject, recognising the singularity/uniqueness of existence, as one on whom much depends, and from whom almost everything begins, who “uses art and mind in his work, and at the same time is aware of the “triple game of contemporary art, the “game of interaction between three fields of influence: the artist, the beholder, to whom more than what is wanted is owed what is needed, and the intermediaries who understand and develop responsibly the culture of the complex, socially necessary, game in which works of art participate in the co-creation[27].




This essay broaches the issue of the status and condition of the contemporary artist; it considers his or her conditions and transformations: historical, socio-tactical in the perspective of contemporary practical strategies of academic art education; it also projects a certain idealistic image of the artist as a conscious subject shaping a reflective reality.

[1] J. Rancière, Dzielenie postrzegalnego. Estetyka i polityka [The Politics of Aesthetics. The Distribution of the Sensible], translated by M. Kropiwnicki and J. Sowa, Kraków 2007.

[2] Ibid., p. 66.

[3] W. Gombrowicz, Dziennik 1961-1966, Kraków 1989, p. 28.

[4]  From today's perspective, Miłosz might appear as a critic insensitive to the correctness of aesthetic politics. Cf. C. Miłosz, O twórcach, in idem, Ogród nauk, Kraków 2013.

[5] Cf. M. Foucault, Słowa i rzeczy. Archeologia nauk humanistycznych [The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences], translated by T. Komendant and A. Tatarkiewicz, Gdańsk 2005, and J. Derrida, Kres człowieka, translated by P. Pieniążek, in idem, Pismo filozofii, Kraków1992.

[6] C. Miłosz, op. cit., p. 145.

[7] P. Auster, J. M. Coetzee, Tu i teraz. Listy 20082011 [Here and Now: Letters, 2008-2011], translated by K. Janusik, Wydawnictwo Znak, Kraków 2014, p. 94.

[8] Z Wiesławem Juszczakiem rozmawia Janusz Marciniak [Wiesław Juszczak interviewed by Janusz Marciniak], “Znak 2020/12, p. 76

[9] M. Czerwiński, Samotność sztuki [The Loneliness of Art], Warsaw 1978.

[10] R. Calasso, Nienazwana teraźniejszość, translated by J. Ugniewska, fundacja terytoria książki, Gdańsk 2019.

[11] E. Montale, Pełnia, in Idem, Zapiski z czterech lat [Notebook of Four Years], translated by J. Mikołajewski, Kraków 2017, p. 8.

[12] N. Heinich, Być artystą. Rzecz o przekształceniach malarzy i rzeźbiarzy [Being an artist. The transformations of the status of painters and sculptors], translated by P. Byliniak, Warsaw 2007, p. 30.

[13] A. Żmijewski, Stosowane sztuki społeczne [Applied social arts], https://utw.uj.edu.pl/documents/6082181/a7f451e7-eb99-4ee9-8ddc-e1f2bf984438, (accessed on 17 February 2020).

[14] T. Parsons, Szkice z teorii socjologicznej [Essays in Sociological Theory], translated by A. Bentkowska, Warsaw 1972, p. 27.

[15] M. Nussbaum, Pielęgnowanie wyobraźni. Literatura i sztuka [Nurturing the imagination. Literature and art], ibid., Nie dla zysku. Dlaczego demokracja potrzebuje humanistów [Not for profit. Why democracy needs humanists], translated by Ł. Pawłowski, Warsaw 2016.

[16] Cf. F. Schiller, Listy o estetycznym wychowaniu człowieka i inne rozprawy [Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man and Other Treatises], translated by I. Krońska and J. Prokopiuk, Warsaw 1972.

[17] My perspective is confirmed by another very-instructive and critical perspective, which strikes with cognitive accuracy and insight, as well as substantive and professional non-conformism; cf. S. Marzec, Alibi dla ciemnoty [An alibi for ignorance], Plus minus. Rzeczpospolita, 29-30 October 2016, pp. 38-39.

[18] Cf. G. Steiner, Gramatyki tworzenia [Grammars of Creation], translated by J. Łoziński, Poznań 2004, pp. 10-11.

[19]  S. Marzec, op. cit., p. 38.

[20] Cf. “Nowi Dawni Mistrzowie [New Old Masters] exhibition at the Abbots Palace, the turn of 2007.              The reference to the exhibition in Gdansk, and the great creative hopes connected with it, shows that it is becoming very difficult to construct a “new mastery in contemporary art.

[21]S. Sontag, Estetyka ciszy [The Aesthetics of Silence], in ibid., Style radykalnej woli [Styles of Radical Will], translated by D. Żukowski, Kraków 2008, p. 15.

[22] Cf. e.g. C. Paglia: Provocations/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvmTHQviAHM/accessed on 01 February 21.

[23] Cf. S. Pinker, Sztuka i nauki humanistyczne [Arts and humanities], in idem, Tabula rasa. Spory o naturę ludzką, [Tabula rasa. Disputes about human nature] translated by A. Nowak, Gdańsk 2005.

[24] F. Furedi, Liberalizm staje się technokratyczny [Liberalism is becoming techncratic], “Teologia Polityczna, 2018-2019 / 11, pp. 20-21.

[25] J. Sempoliński, Zwątpienie [Doubt], in idem, Władztwo i służba [Authority and service], Lublin 2001, p. 395.

[26] A. Touraine, Myśleć inaczej [Thinking Differently], translated by P. Byliniak, Warsaw 2011, p. 73.

[27] N. Heinich, Sztuka jako wyzwanie dla socjologii. Rozmowy z Julienem Ténédosem [Art as a challenge to sociology. Conversations with Julien Ténédos], translated by J. M. Kłoczowski, Gdańsk 2019, pp. 39-42.