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//Freedom in Art// – Maria Anna Potocka

Freedom in Art – Maria Anna Potocka

Maria Anna Potocka (b. 1950) – curator, art critic. Manager of contemporary art galleries between 1972­­­–2010 (Galeria PI, Galeria Pawilon, Galeria Foto-Video, Galeria Potocka). She has been building a collection of global contemporary art since 1984. Member of the International Künstler Gremium, AICA (1996–2003 President of the Polish Section), ICOM. Curated numerous exhibitions in Poland and abroad. Author of books: Malarstwo (1995), Rzeźba (2002), Estetyka kontra sztuka (2006, doctoral thesis), To tylko sztuka (2008), Fotografia (2010), Wypadek polityczny (2010) and many theoretical and philosophical tests. In 2002–2010, director of the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery. Director at MOCAK since 2010.

For an artist, freedom springs from creative opposition to everything that shapes human life, becoming either a blessing or a curse. This freedom gives artists the right to formulate views on every topic. The artist – carried by the energy of a free human spirit – watches the world with a critical eye and questions everything that may seem obvious or God-ordained to others. Artists do not allow their freedom of self-determination to be suppressed by any means. The civilisation uses this critical energy for ideological change. Thanks to artists, the world can modernise and free itself from the shackles of obsolete values. Independent worldview and sensitivity to ossifying paradigms are what makes artists socially valuable.

Every person can become an artist. However, most systems of education – even though they support drawing and modelling skills – suppress the freedom of spirit and turn us into self-satisfied slaves. It is in a way justified. From the social point of view, only the community of beliefs and superstitions may guarantee control over a group. States, nations, religions and tribes: all of them are untiring creators of collective thinking patterns. Most people succumb to this manipulation and thus give up on being artists, because community of beliefs is enough to kill all art.

Such a ‘collective’ person identifies self-trust with trusting his or her own perception. Meanwhile, artists – who sometimes trust themselves to the point of becoming arrogant – are not satisfied with what they see, but they construct their work, a strange, alienated product, which lays bare all the minuscule lies that they see. Works allow artists to confront the world of perception. The sloth of perception is replaced with active gazing.

The artist’s gaze goes deeper than just an ordinary look. Wherever he or she looks, this place becomes subject to ‘analytical torment’ and its balance is disturbed. This is why a so far dormant element of reality may become a living inspiration for change. Using art as a critical tool against the collective awareness protects us against sinking into the ideology of previous generations and contributes to cultural evolution. Creators have been praised for playing such a role for centuries; they forced others to change their thinking habits and thus modernised the general perception of the world. This role of art is quite distinct in the choices of history. Artists were valued for their uncompromising attitude and outsider distance. Manual talents were only a tool that allowed them to reveal their priceless skills.

The 20th century relieved artists completely of any duties. From that moment on, the artists’ role consists in manifesting their dissatisfaction with social norms, in questioning hierarchies, ridiculing superstitions, shattering religious self-righteousness and exploring fears and concealed problems. The way in which this criticism is expressed – the intensity of content against modesty of form – becomes the sole measure of artistic value. When artists manage to spot, at the right moment, something that is almost breaking under the burden of taboo, they gain the right to move one atom in the scaffolding of sense. The artists transform their existential frustration and social nonconformism into a work of art. In this way, others are able to harness the energy of their freedom.

Artists are people that debate their own perceptions through their works of art. Such a definition does not assume any talent, insisting rather on the creative approach to one’s own life. It also says nothing about formal recommendations. Artists are absolutely free to choose any way they wish to unmask, or rather alienate, this ‘something’. One could go as far as to imagine a purely thought-based work of art, consisting in the ability to distance oneself from one’s own thought and place it in the position of something belonging to the outside world. This view of the artist’s role considers the following aspects to be crucial: the right to individual freedom, passion for life, active approach to cognitive processes and creating messages in a private language. This definition lets us attach the ‘artist’ label to people of various personalities and creative strategies.

What do artists risk? What threatens their freedom?

For a private artist, someone who creates just for their own development, such threats lie in the everyday life, in the lack of funds or time. However, many such artists pursued art throughout their entire life, against all odds.

For a public artist, the biggest danger lies in success. A thing that is associated with liberation becomes slavery when it happens in art. Successful artists quite often succumb to self-conceit, lose their critical attitude and privacy, while their art – although still present on the market – loses value.

When we speak about artists, we usually refer to public artists, creators chosen by the art world and buckled down in the mechanism of culture: they exhibit, are present in collections, critics write about them and galleries publish catalogues discussing their work. The peak achievement in this category is an artist with an outstanding personality, who infuses his or her work with an aura of almost unimaginable inspiration. This combination – outstanding art and distinctive personality – is extremely rare. Old art used to call it ‘genius’. A celebrity artist is a cheap variant of this status, boasting market prices and concealing a lacking personality with haughty silence. Both of these types belong to the group of the high and mighty when they live, participating in important exhibitions and famous annual events. Galleries compete to represent them, they sell everything right off the bat and critics write entire books devoted to their oeuvre.

In this top group of artist, only the ‘celebrities’ may be artistically threatened, because the spotlight may easily rob them of their privacy, critical attitude and sense of obligation towards their own freedom. These artists do not know how to cope with success. In the best case scenario, they pretend to ignore it, trying to play modest and natural. It is an act, though, so soon enough the tones of excessive self confidence, suppressed by brute force, start to resurface. Some artists disappear from the circle, fearing malice and envy. They don’t know how to behave. Some assume an attitude of an unavailable or arrogant winner. Very few of those success winners hardly notice the situation and treat is as a foreign event in the life of a stranger.

Successful artists live in fear and pay close attention to even slightest signs of danger. Quite often they also feel they don’t get as much as they deserve. A straight majority of artists locate the reason for their success within themselves. They treat relegation to the margins as injustice resulting from the faulty system or intrigues. Living in such stress becomes a form of slavery. They pay for it with the see-saw of ‘giving and receiving’ and slowly become convinced that they create art for others. Those who receive their gifts owe them gratitude. This illusion distorts the nature of all creation, turning the private meaning into a mission. Artists that start believing in a talent-infused mission are justified in expecting fame or money. However, they give nothing. Their art is taken, not given.

Thirst for success is another form of slavery for artists that seek in vain to achieve the position of a public figure. This situation most often applies to art school graduates. They started dreaming about galleries, sales, recognition and related profits when they were still students. Such an approach to creation is purely instrumental, because it treats art as a ticket to the institutional heaven. Social status is the goal, creativity is only a tool. Artists from this group are never invited into the circle: they don’t participate in exhibitions, never display in commercial galleries, nobody writes about them. As a result, they feel unfulfilled, lacking the social recognition they geared themselves towards. Most artists from this group drive themselves and others crazy with their sense of injustice and with imaginary intrigues crafted to ignore their art.

Both public and aspiring artists are convinced that their art is socially valuable and thus expect interest, success and financial recognition in return, which will allow them to earn a living by making art. What separates the two groups is the reaction of the artworld ‘only’. The former meets with interest, the latter with indifference. A vast majority of artists that graduate from art schools dream about fame and money. Achieving one and the other is possible only through the decisions of the artworld that – by recognising the public value of someone’s creation – buys the artist out of his or her privacy, paying with fame and market success. Being taken out of privacy – even the sheer desire for that to happen – is a dangerous experience for artists. Only those can win who are able to separate creation from fame, perceiving art as a complicated importance, and success as a pleasurable non-importance.

There is also a third group of artists, independent of the artworld mechanism of choice, a group ‘enslaved by their own liberty’. For them, the meaning of art is rooted completely in private considerations. They don’t dream about galleries and success, and art is usually just an additional pursuit, although for some it did become their entire life. This group also includes some ‘professional’ artists, with exhibitions and market success, who nevertheless are deeply indifferent to financial rewards, with such an outsider attitude that success in the other world means nothing to them.[1] Such people display a special kind of innocence resulting from lack of career awareness. They are admired for their independence and nonchalance towards the perks of artistic success.

The 20th century liberated artists. They no longer have to create beauty, tell the truth, have talented hands, offer accurate reproductions of reality, unleash grandeur, bring pleasure, delight or move. They are supposed to be themselves, according to their own rules. This liberty is only partially a gift. It is first of all a trick played by our culture that wants to look at the world through the eyes of those who know no boundaries, who are open and untainted by the contemporary lies. This is why it sets the artists free to roam the dangerous fields of freedom, promising nothing in return.[2] They may comment on what they want, how they want, but they should not treat their comments as tradable goods, for which culture owes them something. This is a new situation for art – artistic endeavour has become a cultural potential, not a commodity ordered by culture. For a potential to fulfil its role it needs to be much bigger than the demand. As a result, a vast majority of artistic output never makes it into the public sphere. Artists are as yet unwilling to accept this state of affairs, because they can hardly forget the benefits provided to artists under ‘slavery’. In those times, art was ordered by the state, so artists could count on payment and public recognition. The position of a professional of an outstanding talent allowed them to strive for fame and wealth. The contemporary ‘free’ artist may only secretly dream about this type of success, because it is bad tone to publicly declare such sentiments. In the past, artists were a part of the professional mechanism of art, they practised art diplomacy, wangled their way into the hermetic circled of grand masters and offered their services in all possible ways. Contemporary artists are a potential, an opportunity waiting to be summoned for public appearance.

The nostalgia of the current situation is rooted in the past, while its reality – in the future. Artists are suspended between the two; they are no longer professionals whose services are needed, and have yet not learnt how to become private creators. The desire to become a public artist still dominates, without any reflection on the private raison d’être of one’s own art. Culture seeks privacy, artists dream of publicity. This discrepancy persists mostly at the expense of creators, embittered because some imagined promise of studying art as a way to get a job went unfulfilled.

The attitude of culture towards art is quite clear in our times. It is the task of culture to discover private commentaries that are critical of the dogmatism of collective worldviews. To this end, culture strives to have access to the largest possible number of artists, in order to be able to select the lucky few that respond to the needs of their time. It encourages people to become artists and then leaves most brave souls stranded. Artists are not yet ready for such treatment. In the current, interim period[3], while culture is changing the way it uses art, artists are the most fragile element, especially vulnerable in the face of injustice. All of this in return for absolute freedom. Artists are no longer treated as contracted interpreters and illustrators of common ideas, instead becoming creators of private critical commentaries, drafted without anybody’s orders. However, artists ought to be commentary creators only from the perspective of culture. For their own purposes, they should be authors of private cognitive constructions. This two-pronged existence of art is still hard to swallow to artists. For most of them, their work is not economical on the personal plane, and so they do everything to sell it to culture. Most of them will be disappointed. However, it is not easy to become private and selfless with all those ‘renaissance’ temptations hanging around. Resisting them is not easy. Succumbing – on top of the frustration it causes – disturbs the quality of privacy and hence lowers the cultural value of creation.

The artists that listen into the manipulations of culture and are hungry for recognition instinctively feel the work of such mechanisms. They know that culture seeks surprising private commentaries with universal references capable to pinpoint the ossified elements of the general paradigm. The vast majority of artists realise that their output is assessed in terms of its cultural relevance and – sometimes succumbing to the zeitgeist, sometimes out of cynicism – they try to adapt their art to their own perception of what is important to culture at the moment. Only radical outsiders do not give in to cultural manipulations and are able to avoid ‘pro-artworld’ calculation in their work. By deciding to co-operate with culture, artists betray their own freedom, because the artistic value lies in privacy and originality, not in serving culture.

Artists have become victims suspended between two ages: the one that is fading away with its ethos of genius, and the one that is coming, extolling the privacy of art. Dreams still latch on to the former, reality is closer to the latter. Art is no longer a profession that brings money, exhibitions and fame to its members; it has evolved into a very special form of constructing worldviews by looking upon oneself in ‘image-based texts’. This change happened ahead of time, so society is not yet ready to accept the new order. Artists are still treated as potential geniuses. This harmful superstition breaks characters and forms false attitudes towards. And yet, past knowledge and outdated experience are still more powerful than mechanisms that, while waiting to be named, rule the world of art as it is today. Artists are no longer selected for virtuoso perfection. What counts first of all is vigilance, ruthlessness of interpretation, and the ‘beautiful presence of meaning’. All of this requires a strong personality.

Art is a private existential tool. It enables people to raise their self-awareness, look at the problems that shape their life from a distance and to assume control over their own existence, transforming it into a more intense experience. Discovering such art helps manage the surrounding nonsense. Being an artist is not a profession. Being an artist is a form of pursuing a worldview and consists in turning certain reflections or surprises into external objects that help look at problems from a distance, perceiving them as something foreign and thus falling into a position of criticism towards one’s own cognition.[4]

[1] Jerzy Nowosielski was one of such artists, absorbed exclusively by painting and its mystical determinants.

[2] Of course it ‘sets free’ only those that are predisposed to outsider freedom.

[3] Which has lasted for over a century.

[4] In this sense, anyone can be an artist.