The Art(Is)t

By John Anthony Estolloso 

The artist is the creator of beautiful things, quotes Oscar Wilde. However, he is not the artwork itself nor has he any assertion to whatever prestige the artwork intrinsically holds.

Ars longa, vita brevis: the artwork remains, the artist will end. As such, the art is an entity unto its own self, with an existence that demands to be because it must: art for its own sake. The artist may hold the prestige of being the vestibule of idea from whence the art form found its seminal beginnings – but he ends there. He is but a means to an end. After all, the purpose of art is to express what is meant and to mask the expresser. We see the artistry in the painting, not the artist.

When one hums to the soundtrack while watching a Star Wars episode, do we imagine the graying figure of John Williams waving the conductor’s baton over the orchestra, or are we intently gripped with the moment’s exhilaration of a galactic battle between good and evil? If you went to watch ‘Goyo’ for the sake of gushing over Paulo Avelino’s close-ups, then you are denigrating yourself – and Jerrold Tarog’s cinematic masterpiece would have been reduced to a mere platform from which another pretty face launched his onscreen career. As such, it is not the artist that we attend to or experience, but the artwork itself.

Granted, there is no art without the artist. He seats on that special throne in the realm of humanity where he shares the ultimate power of the Divine: the capacity to create. One may argue that scientists and mathematicians can also create; true, but they can only create what the laws of nature and numbers will permit them. A biologist cannot and will not affirm that leaves of a single species of plant life may adapt different pigments or shapes simultaneously, in the same way that a mathematician will never come up with an equation accurate enough to measure love, anger, glory, or despair. However, the artist is capable of all that – and through his media and means, he can express, inspire, and conserve these parts and parcels of intellectual and spiritual consciousness for his time and for posterity.

Attempt to find a mathematical formula for human affection and you will fail miserably. Yet, you can get a passionate glimpse of the same in Gustav Klimt’s torrid ‘Kiss’, or in the maternal gaze engraved eternally in Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’. Search for an equation comprehensive enough to describe wrath and despair, and you will find that numbers fail you. Yet the same powerful expressions can be found in the introductory lines of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ or in the voiceless, desperate scream of Al Pacino in the concluding scenes of ‘The Godfather III.’ Look for a calculation that will accurately describe oppression and misery, and you will find that statistics cannot measure up to one iota human enough to paint their image and likeness. Yet read beyond the lines of Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ or Rizal’s ‘El Filibusterismo’, and you will encounter how inhumanity in society can shape the sentiment of the masses.

For even some of the basic sciences find their roots in the artistic experience: the first engineers were the architects of the Pyramids and the Parthenon who relied solely on geology, geometry, and gravity; the first astronomers were the myth-makers who wrote their stories in the stars; the first anatomists were the sketchers who loved above all else the structural perfection of the human body; the laws of acoustics were perfected to the demands of the Greek stage and the curves of the violin; the principles of optics were uncovered to the needs of the camera obscura, that the painter may re-interpret the world through rose-colored lenses. Repeatedly through the course of the human odyssey, it is in the workings of the artists’ thoughts that reality is re-created to emphasize or to diminish truths – that to the progress or detriment of the world they live in.

As history would have it, it was the wielder of the pen, the brush, the chisel, the musical instrument, and the mask that beat the path to how we define an era of peace and prosperity. For true artistic expression can only thrive when the times are kind to it: when the times are cruel, art is subjugated to become a means of propaganda and brainwashing, and the artist becomes a puppet and a tool.

On many instances have we seen the artistic spark bursting to flame in the sporadic golden ages that saw the construction of the great cathedrals and mosques, the flowering of the Shakespearean stage, and the risorgimento of free expression in the works of the Impressionists and Modernists. They speak of an individualism that when fostered and cultivated well eventually projects a collective voice that speaks in behalf of a great nation. On the other hand, we have seen the brutal spectacle and grandeur of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, or marveled at the massive murals and parades of the old Soviet Union or of Communist China – expressions of suppressed individualism where the only aim is to tell a national narrative as its despots and dictators want it to be told.

So the legacy remains – and it cannot be stifled. In the daily grind of routine and regularity, art stands out as an echoing testament of the ultimate word in Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem’: EGO. It is only in the outpouring of the artist’s Self that establishes the monuments of our realities and relentlessly reminds future generations that we too have loved and lived.

There are some who contend that artists have a world of their own, that they see things differently from us. They are not wrong. Admit it, even you were scandalized when your literature teacher introduced you to Jose Garcia Villa’s ‘The Emperor’s New Sonnet’, or when your music teacher made you ‘listen’ to John Cage’s ‘4’33”’ – and who would have the temerity to conjure such works if not an artistic imagination? To create something requires one to look at things in a different perspective, even if that means beating against the common current of thought – something that is most difficult for a world set on a course of normalcy and convention to accept. For this reason, artists will always be the disturbers of hearts and minds, the intellectual powers that be that wear no gown or crown – they will always be the fools who dream.


Mr. Estolloso is an art and humanities teacher of Ateneo de Iloilo.