The Artist as Showman: would even Dali make it in today's world?
Tara Parmar delves into the past with Salvador Dali's moustache and Warhol's bright canvases to interrogate the role publicity and showmanship plays today in recognising great art. She asks, does showmanship overshadow or enhance the Artist and their artwork?
During the 20th century there was an exponential growth in artistic development like no other in art history. While Picasso was exploring the dizzying heights of cubism and Duchamp was signing his urinal, Salvador Dali was refining his moustache and becoming more eccentric by the day. His surrealist world spilled out from the canvas and into life itself. His eccentricity alone makes him one of the 20th century’s most memorable artists – but to what degree did his showmanship overshadow his artwork?
From early on in life Salvador Dali’s career as an artist was always promising. His remarkable talent in meticulously painting details of unrelated objects morphing into one another made his hyperrealist style all the more absorbing. Setting aside his showmanship and eccentricity, Dali's artwork always stands out as phenomenally advanced.
His curious mind ensured his work was current with the most advanced theories of the time - making references to the psychological studies of Freud - and even Einstein’s theory of relativity - meant that his appeal went far beyond just the art world.
Before even receiving notable international fame for his obscure ways, he was already a prominent figure, at the forefront of modern painting; whether it was for the size of his moustache or his intricate paintings it needn’t have mattered since he would have always been remembered in history regardless.
However, as an artist now we find it is just as much about how you publicise yourself as it is about the content of your work and, we must accept that the act of publicising yourself is ever more important today in an age of fierce competition. Artists such as Warhol perfectly displayed how successful publicity can make you.
Publicity is however, based on what is fashionable and is only effective in reaching the masses if it meets the fashion criteria of the age. What comes into making artists such as Dali and Warhol great showmen is how they made their own persona a fashion; and each had equally remarkable artwork supporting their unusual ways; they were never just a showman playing for the crowd – whereas nowadays, we may have the showman, but do they still have genuine artwork of substance to back up their eccentricity?
During the respective times of both Dali and Warhol, the advancement in communications provided further opportunity for The Artist. It was along with the growth of technological advancements that these ‘characters’ of the arts scene started to appear; because what’s the point of the camera if there’s no one to aim it at?
The beauty in the development of mass communication is that you could be projected anywhere; and they each ensured to put themselves in front of every screen as much as they possibly could. It was Dali’s move the US during WWII that opened up film opportunities with Walt Disney, gaining him yet again further exposure.
But what of the artist who doesn’t play the showman? Art history’s ultimate recluse, Van Gogh never saw appreciation in his era, yet now his work is breaking sales records at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
Joseph Cornell was another notable recluse, refusing to stray too far from his home town and continuing to live with his mother throughout his life, his obsessiveness only contributed to his artworks. He is within the canon of notable artists of the 20th Century whose success demonstrates that the showman isn’t always needed. (For more read here how Joseph Cornell conquered the art world from his mother's basement).
No matter the era, great art always has a way of rising to the surface. However, our problem now is that there is such a wealth of art to sift through. Though it may take longer for us to recognise greatness, we have to hope that the outstanding will continuously show itself to have longevity and timelessness.
Who knows if Dali and Warhol would survive in a modern world against characters such as Grayson Perry or Lady Gaga? The Reality of modern life is that publicity and showmanship is how we get noticed through immense competition.
Being noticed isn’t just a topic within the arts but a fundamental part of humanity. And due to the existence of social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, it displays our ongoing need to be the showman ourselves - essentially we’re all playing for the camera in our own right.