Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Conventional Eccentricity

“Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.” John Stuart Mill (1859)

It has almost become a present day truism that artists are nonconformists, but if this is true, I have to say that I haven’t really noticed. Yes, artists tend to be left-wing secular humanists (though they might not describe themselves as such) but this would seem to be more a proof of homogeneity than nonconformity. Undoubtedly, there has always the occasional “eccentric” with prominently unconventional tastes, fashion style, beliefs or demeanour, but in general, artists are pretty well as orthodox as everyone else in society. You’d certainly be hard-pressed to distinguish an artist from a line up of randomly selected individuals. Of course, nonconformity isn’t specifically attributable to appearances, it can just as easily cover attitude, lifestyle, philosophical or political beliefs etc, but once again, most artists aren’t radically different from many other people in these respects either.

So, has something changed in the modern period – and if J.S Mill was right, are we in some kind of moral and creative hiatus or worse still peril? Have artists become so cowed by social pressure that they’ve lost the ability or confidence to stand out from the crowd? This seems highly unlikely. If you look at images of groups of artists from any period you’ll notice that, for the most part, they look pretty much like everyone else of the time (though photographs of Yves Tanguy in the 1920’s, with his characteristic gravity defying pre-punk hairstyle, are perhaps a memorable exception).

Why might this be the case and what might the apparent conformity of artists tell us about art itself? Firstly I think we need to examine why people in general might wish to conform. Critics of conformity often suggest that it’s because we’re afraid of the persecution or rejection which might arise from making our opinions public, and that conformity is simply an expression of our fear and lack of self confidence. Mill’s remarks above echo as much, but I think this is perhaps too simplistic and reductive an explanation.

Conformity allows us to feel as though we’re part of something and since we’re social animals this is probably no bad thing. Admittedly, it also provides a certain stability and security which, whilst clearly desirable in any healthy society, can easily lead to unquestioning attitudes and critical indolence. But conformity also provides an ease of choice - since we need not constantly expend energy on questioning - and arriving at considered opinions about - absolutely everything we encounter. To be this unconventional would take such an inordinate amount of effort as to be impossible. Life’s simply too short. For this reason, we have little choice but to accept many of life’s “norms” as, at least, provisionally adequate to our present purposes. So, whilst there may be certain aspects of anxiety-avoidance involved in our conformity, the more compelling explanation appears to be because we simply have better things to spend our time and energy on. It’s a question of priorities, and this is where I think conformity can tell us something very important about artists and art.

In their own creative practice, artists are also necessarily far more conventional than might be thought to be the case and this is because convention and conformity form an all-important background (“a blank canvass” one might say) upon which all deviations become significant. The more familiar you are with an artist’s work, the more these tell-tale shifts indicate points of critical importance. It’s always the aspects of change within any normative process which draw critical attention and demand explanation and it’s exactly in such situations that eccentricity really counts as a creative strategy. It’s only against this background of convention, of silence or neutrality, as relative and bounded as it may be, that coherent expression is possible. In a cacophony nothing distinguishes itself. Moving out of centre (literally “ec-centric”) requires there to be a centre in the first instance to move outside of, otherwise there’d be no conventions to conform to and eccentricity itself would be the norm.


Anonymous said...

Do you have a 'face'?

Are you conventional?

I think this oxymoron has caused a great deal of worries and continue to do so.
Very interesting writing as always. Thank you!

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