|On the Threshold of Eternity by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, oil.
Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.
Vincent van Gogh, today recognized by generations for his contributions
to art, was largely ignored and dismissed in his own lifetime.
In last month's column, when I talked about the advantages and disadvantages of self-promotion, I mentioned how refreshing it is to discover an extremely talented but relatively unknown artist. I suggested that if an artist is gifted and original enough, the right person will discover this talent and bring it into the light, even if the artist prefers to remain reclusive or out of the public eye.
Because this issue of American Artist focuses on discovering unsung or underappreciated talent by highlighting artists who are worthy of our attention, I thought it would be interesting to explore the idea of what makes an artist stand out, rise to the top, or "tip." The term "tipping point" was made popular by Malcolm Gladwell, who in his 2000 book of that name offered interesting insight on why certain products, people, or trends in our culture reach critical mass or become what is today called "viral."
The book divides people of influence in our society into three main categories. Connectors are those with great social networks in their industry who link people together. Mavens are experts in their field who are in the position to start word-of-mouth trends. And Salesmen are charismatic, trustworthy individuals who take a trend to the masses. Gladwell surmises that those with the personality and callings in one or more of those categories are the ones who shape our society and call the cultural shots.
Although this book applies to general societal trends, I think it can also be applied to the fine-art world. Once there is a discovery of a rare artistic talent or ability, how does that knowledge get disseminated? To me, this sociological model implies that artists themselves are only partly responsible for the creation of their own reputation or legacy. Rather, the best way for them to affect that buzz is through becoming a better painter so that someone in the categories of influence will recognize them and bring them to the public's attention. We know from looking at art history that there were artists who achieved high levels of success by having their skill and worth esteemed by people in positions of power—Velázquez, who had royal patronage, comes to mind. And there are also artists whose talent and influence were not fully realized until they were gone, such as Van Gogh.
In the book My Name is Charles Saatchi And I Am an Artoholic, Saatchi—the founder of Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency and one of the most prominent collectors of contemporary art—responded to questions posed by a panel of experts. They ask, "You've been successful at discovering new artistic talent. But are there not always great artists who go undiscovered?" Saatchi responds: "By and large, talent is in short supply. Mediocrity can sooner be taken for brilliance than genius can go undiscovered." Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all—both in looking through art history and today—is when there is an artist of supreme talent or originality among us but no one pays close enough attention to recognize and acknowledge the artist's gift.
Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist.