The Artist as Medium
The words artist and medium are combined in almost every discussion of contemporary art, but to ‘be’ a medium evokes an entirely different image, that of a large table, low-hanging chandelier, and seated guests hand-in-hand, all eyes fixed on he or she who will channel the spirits from some further plane of existence. Do what you can to wipe such an image from your mind and, in this instance, consider the artist to be neither channel nor vessel for spirits, meaning, genius, or even for ideas. In this case, the nature of ‘being’ a medium is the artist as one who exists (or existed) in the world, and this very fact of being, of living, as a medium in and of itself.
The role of artists in society has forever been in a state of flux, their works taking a wide range of forms far too varied to name here but including documentation, worship, propaganda, entertainment and academic enquiry. Earlier centuries found value in imitation, and often looked upon creativity as divine intervention. With the nineteenth century came the Enlightenment, and with it the proliferation of a Kantian notion of the artist, a lone individual, born a creative genius, who needs only accept their fate. Have we shed the image of the genius artist? Perhaps, to some extent, but the weight of value currently placed on originality has bolstered the fallacy of the artist as inherently individual. And as such, the one-of-a-kind artists are numerous enough as to be a collective norm―most clearly evident in the paradox of the hipster.
Nevertheless, the artist is inseparably intertwined with the art produced. Collectors want to own an O’Keeffe, a Picasso, or a Yayoi Kusama―replacing the object with the name of the maker does not even sound peculiar―and through this phrasing we can further confirm the fusion of the artist and the art. In building one’s career in the art market, there is still as much, if not more, emphasis on the creation of the artist than that of the works, and artists who intend to pursue a career are themselves aware of the need to build and shape their identity. Despite what may appear to be a dismissal of the value in such brand-building for the artist, on the contrary, I see a latent potential beyond the popularizing of a brand, the possibility to employ the artists’ image to deepen the reading of a work―essentially an extension of medium to include the artist themselves―another tool to be embraced and utilised.
McLuhan’s perspective that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 1967; McLuhan 1994) has been integrated into a wide range of academic discourse, and in such times as these whereby the evolution of medium is par for the course, producers who choose not to interrogate their medium of choice are lauded for taking a purist approach or being disconnected from the society at large. Educational institutions are increasingly moving away from distinctly separated medium-specific courses, moving further from the mindset that each medium exists within its own bubble, its own self-referential modes of discourse that seek not to question the decision that lead to its adoption by the artist. Interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary approaches and fluidity in means of production is the mainstay for the contemporary artist wishing to find a sustainable place for him or herself in the current art climate. But the artists themselves are as much a factor in the reading of any work of art as the medium through which it has been produced. Within the world of contemporary art, I would expect little resistance to the assertion that ‘who the artist is’ matters at least to some degree in most, if not all encounters with an artwork. Even if we do not require or desire this knowledge of who made it, on knowing, there is an inevitable effect on our reading or enjoyment of any given work of art.
Identities of all kinds play a part in the building of the artist’s identity, and otherness―such as sexuality, nationality, race, disability, or gender―fits the bill of the prescribed image of the artist. The unsmiling face of Yayoi Kusama promoting her current exhibition at The National Art Center Tokyo illustrates this point to some extent. More than any other factor, her visible advanced age and harsh facial expression contrast so acutely with the colourful nature of her works and the wonder of stepping into an infinity room that an essential tension comes to the fore. She reminds us that the artworks have a maker, and how different the function of the making is compared to the function for the viewer. As a result, Kusama’s presence, the fact of her being and living, and how her works relate to that existence, make the artist the medium as much as any materials used in production.