Artists' Egos / by Jeannine Cook

An aspect of the art world that the general public often talks about is an artist's ego - it is part of the domain of artistic myths and legends. Everyone, at one point or another, has heard about an artist seemingly behaving like a prima donna. It makes good copy for a reporter or writer and interests many readers.

Nonetheless, artists themselves seldom think specifically about ego or how they might be perceived as having a large ego. Usually we are all too involved with our artwork and artistic endeavours, and anxious to ensure its visibility, success and survival. There is usually such a clamour in the public space that it is hard to get viewed, heard, understood...

Marina Abramovic, a very successful artist whose reputation is coupled with a sense of serious dedication to her work, talked in an interesting way about artists' egos. She was interviewed in May 2009 by David Ebony in Art in America, and described how she had gained humility during a month-long yoga retreat in which she had participated. To achieve complete emptiness in her thinking, she talked of retraining herself to work from the top downwards, thus achieving an absence of ego. She remarked, "Our culture is so much about building up the ego of the artist. But it's not you who is important, it's the work. The ego is actually an obstacle to the work." (The image above is courtesy of the Guardian, UK, from an article by James Westcott about Abramovic's 2010 exhibition at MOMA, The Artist is Present.)

Thinking about her statement made me measure its truth. If you have envisaged a work of art and launch into making it, there is frequently an insistent little voice in your head talking about those preconceived ideas, how the work might be perceived, what effect the work might have on a viewer, etc.... Emptying your mind of all expectations and simply flowing, almost instinctively, with the development of the work is a totally different affair. Things happen that you do not know consciously about, perceptions that only become obvious after coming out of the creative phase, conversations that develop in spite of or despite the ego. Making art becomes a voyage into the unknown, a voyage unaccompanied by preconceptions and that looming sense of self.

After all, at the end of any creation process, the work has to stand on its own feet, away from any reference to the artist, in many senses. This situation was driven home to me a couple of days ago when I walked into the beautiful home of a new friend. On her walls hung a number of interesting pieces of art, some of which I recognised instantly, but many of which were created by artists I did not know. Their work was just that - artwork - and each piece transmitted its messages to me. The ensuing dialogue was, of course, coloured by my life experience and perceptions, but nevertheless, the paint on canvas or drawing marks on paper had to "make their own sale" to me. The artist's ego, in each case, was a moot point. No longer were there a gallery owner or the artist at my elbow to explain and validate the work.

It seems to me that Ms. Abramovic spoke wisely about ensuring that the ego should not get in the way of creating art. Letting art guide one in its making and then in its dialogue with the world is, in truth, very complicated and yet, very simple.