Clichés in the art world: artists ahead of their time
To say that an artist was ahead of his time is baloney.
Nobody is ahead of his time. They inspire others, those who are their contemporaries and those who come after them.
It’s a saying we use when we want to explain the society, but more importantly the critics.
They couldn’t have recognized such and such as a great artist because he was “ahead of his time”. Which means that had he not been ahead of his time people (and more importantly art critics) would obviously have recognized him as a great artist.
It’s like saying We didn’t screw up. If anything he screwed up by being ahead of his time.
We need to be able to say who screwed up. We need to create a convenient narrative which we will use in order to explain our current fascination with this artist and the fact that previous generations didn’t revere him.
It’s not that our great grandparents were blind or dumb or ignorant. The artist himself made it impossible too difficult for others to start to revere him earlier.
And it’s not that we have invented something. We haven’t made it up. It was always there, it was always worthy of being revered. We don’t make things up! We don’t create those legends or geniuses! Anybody who accuses us of creating geniuses or legends must be out of his mind. Another convenient narrative which additionally effectively prevents most people from seeing a different reality of the world.
The only explanation for this “delayed” fascination is that most people need time to adjust to all things new. They aren’t particularly thrilled that someone did something which is unconventional, flies in the face of what they already know and how they see certain things. Thus anything which defies the convention isn’t welcome, at least at first. Think about Nicolaus Copernicus and his heliocentric theory. The guy was afraid to publish his book and ended up waiting 10 years before doing it. He was worried that people will not accept it.
And it’s only when it’s no longer that new (because there were others who followed suit, did similar thing, were inspired) that we will be able to accept it as “normal”.
Which also means that we will want to know who started this new genre, style. Who dared? Who was so courageous? Must have been something special about this person. Let’s dig a little bit deeper. And we start to revere this person. The guy or gal who was the first person to ever use this technique (style) will be particularly revered and recognized. Which is quite obvious.
We then go on to say that were it not for him this new genre / style wouldn’t exist today, for which we have no proof whatsoever, because we can’t know what would have happened had this person never been born. My take, sooner or later someone else would have invented it. But the story is way more enticing if we say Were it not for this particular person, we wouldn’t have X today. This is not necessarily true. We can’t know such things.
So people are never ahead of their time. They trigger a change. Accidentally they introduce others to something which is new, unconventional, unheard of. And it either scares the hell out of people or makes them uncomfortable in that it makes them question the existing reality or the definitions they espoused. They aren’t thrilled by that.
But it doesn’t mean that those who started it (those artists) would have been better off had they been born 50 years later. If they are the ones who questioned the status quo how can we be sure that without their contribution the reality would have been identical? Maybe the style / genre would have been invented by another human being 100 years later and our historical reality of the world would have looked differently? We can’t say for sure that being born 50 years later would have made all the difference in this person’s life and that this person definitely would have been understood and his art embraced by others. We just can’t. We don’t know it.
We can dream that had we been born in 1945 in Europe (say 15 years later than actually) we would have been better off. At least if we consider the chances of our survival and the survival of our relatives and friends. But it also isn’t a plausible argument if we consider that we only wish one part of the reality had been different. Why assume that while one part of the reality would have been different, other parts of it would have stayed the same?
If we want to invent other historical scenarios we should also factor in that what happened in Europe between 1930 and 1945 could just as well have happened (in our invented scenario) between 1945 and 1960. Or, that something just as bad, or even worse could have happened in Europe again between 1960 and 1961 (with nuclear weapons). But it wouldn’t fit into our carefully doctored scenario. To be able to create those favorable scenarios we need to assume that only one part of the reality would be different and other parts would stay the same. Which is a wishful thinking at best and dumb at worst.
But a similar thing can’t even be attempted if we speak about those who shaped the reality. If you started something being born 50 years later than actually offers no guarantee that you would have been a hit because people would already have different expectations (mindset). In such case having certain expectations concerning your life in this different reality is even more ludicrous than wishing that you had been born after the WWII (when you unjustly treat the time frame of WWII as something that is fixed, or the only bad thing in this new reality).