I had an open studio last night, and one of the most honest and welcomed comments of the evening went something like "It's so nice coming in here, you have great art and you're not a pompous jackass". I loved it. It was refreshingly direct and complimentary to me, and it also set me thinking this morning about what seems like a fairly common perception of arrogance among artists.
I know a lot of engineers and technical people, and it's a very different crowd. It's by and large populated by people who's focus is a can-do, "let's make this thing work" approach to solving problems. There definitely can be a flavor of arrogance and intimidation, but the engineering world essentially functions as a meritocracy, and the skills of the people in it are unambiguously evident. Anybody with a high opinion of their own capabilities had better be able to back it up with performance: The bridge they built stays up, or it falls down. Quality in the engineering world is pretty darned obvious, and it breeds a kind of group clear-headedness and general humility that I find very appealing.
Not entirely so in the art world. I once had a conversation with a composition teacher of mine about why there seemed to be so many arrogant composers, when that arrogance didn't always seem to be justified. His insight was a good one: Lacking any objective and irrefutable standard of quality (ie, the bridge doesn't collapse), some composers feel the psychological need to compensate by placing the focus directly on themselves instead of the work; essentially making a small "cult of personality", which quickly degenerates into just plain arrogance. The same can apply to painters. I hasten to add here that I'm only talking in stereotypes, which only contain a grain of the truth. As with all endeavors, the better practitioners are often fairly modest, unassuming people.
The root of the problem is the lack of this objective standard of quality. Place a picture of a bridge in front of 10 people, and you will always get a unanimous answer as to whether it is still standing or not. Ask the same 10 people if they think it's beautiful, and you'll get a range of responses. It's the nature of the beast, and it will never change. Nor should it... aesthetics are often delicious because of their very elusiveness.
BUT... it creates unfortunate problems for all involved. I think we've all had the experience of walking into a gallery and being met with a cursory glance of derisive dismissal delivered by a gaunt, recently minted graduate student of Comparative Art Psycho-Babble or something similar. It's so prevalent that it's a stereotype. A friend of mine calls them "The Black-Clad Children Of The Apocalypse". And they forget the cardinal rule of retail: You Never Know Who's Going To Buy Something From You. It can be even worse when some artists are involved, because then the personality play kicks in ("My Work Is Superior Because I'm So Great").
The real tragedy comes when this attitude breeds among the art audience a sense of uncertainty and lack of confidence in their own taste. I've had a surprising number of people come into my studio and start off a conversation with me by saying in an apologetic tone "I don't know anything about art, but...". I simply cannot imagine the very same people walking into an auto showroom and starting off "I don't know anything about cars, but..."
It's too bad, really. There is a grand body of knowledge surrounding art and art history, and delving into it can be a really wonderful and gratifying experience. However, it's also completely unnecessary to have any sophistication beyond knowing what appeals to you. My response to such people is usually something along the lines of "it's just a matter of looking at a lot of paintings and coming to your own conclusions about what you do and don't like... there's nothing mysterious about it whatsoever...". It's my hope that in doing so, I'm injecting a little bit of sanity, humility, and clear-headedness into the art appreciation process. And, some of these people might just go out and look at a lot of paintings, and they might just decide they'd like one of mine.
You never know...