Steel engraving of Walt Whitman. Published in ...

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My previous post concerned the hostility of many literary artists to traditional Christianity. But since the Renaissance, the artist has been envisioned, at least in the West, as a rebel against the standards of his age.  Walt Whitman, Paul Gauguin, Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alan Ginsburg, the artist has been associated with rebellion against cultural norms, whether those norms be traditional sexuality or the capitalist economy. Three of the most literary philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, were also rebels against societal norms opposed to conformity. Even traditionally religious artists, such as W. H. Auden, Allen Tate, and Graham Greene, violated societal norms in their personal lives. Why? There seems to be no necessary connection between being a rebel and being an artist. J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, was a conservative Roman Catholic whose lifestyle was so traditional that biographers are unable to “dig up any dirt” on him. Why are artists such as Tolkien the exception rather than the rule?

The answer may have to do with the modern concept of the artist. In the Middle Ages and even into the early Renaissance, art was not deemed to be primarily self-expression, but service to God. In such a setting, artists would be less likely to rebel since they are servants–to God, to the church that commissioned them, to the patron who commissioned them. But since the Renaissance, art has become individualized, utterly private, the the artist is sometimes tortured in revealing his very being to the world through his art. Such individualism tends to rebellion against the norm.

When sheer individuality without limits is admired, the artist seeks for uniqueness, to have his own one-and-only voice, birthed into the world. And individuality without limits is a seedbed for rebellion. In addition, the baring of one’s unique self to the world causes psychological difficulties that can increase the sense of isolation, of “being against the crowd.” The fact that too many people “against the crowd” are the crowd seems to have escaped the minds of many contemporary artists. It is quite interesting hearing artists speak about politics or religion; they often sound as if they are parroting one another. Thus, the drive toward limitless individuality leads ultimately to limitless conformity among artists and among their works. A boring conformity is the result, damaging the very art the artist wishes to champion. These days it is the traditionalists in art, such as Tom Wolfe in fiction, who are the real rebels against blind conformity–they are the true avant garde.