Salvador Dali, flamboyant, communist artist

Public opinion polls consistently rank “artist” as one of the least highly regarded professions, and Gallup’s “Most Honest and Ethical Professions” poll fails to even list them.

Out of all possible professions, “artists” often conjures up images of lazy, immoral communists lolling around bars late at night. While there are definitely some of those, this image is among the most biased and distorted of all possible stereotypes out there. Where did it come from? Heck if I know, but I have a few ideas:

A teensy, microscopic history of art in America

Stretching back to 16th century, the Reformation left a bad taste in relation to religious art, the kind most people knew. Protestants related art to Roman Catholicism, of which they were not particularly fond. Followers of Calvin destroyed and burned works of art and cathedrals, considered “corrupt” because of their statuary and paintings.

“Angel Pulling Iconoclast,” Chludov Psalter – Byzantine, 9th century

Many American colonists imported this anti-art tendency, with Puritans forbidding most types of “visible representations.” This initiated a 500-year, adverse overreaction to visual art and sculpture, which still influences America to this day.

In the style of Andy Warhol (by Michael Phillips)

In the 1800s, the image of artist as firebrand and rebel began to be etched into modern history. Vincent Van Gogh and others made quite an impression on the scandal-loving public, their eccentricities making more news than their art itself. Through the 20th century, larger than life figures continued to dominate art circles.

Who (if you’re old enough) can forget flashy Salvador Dali or amorous Picasso? America’s Andy Warhol made news for decades, as much for his flamboyant lifestyle as his art (and irritating people to the point where a woman shot him).

These artists were gifted, but I could argue that equal talents were relegated to the twilight, because they hadn’t lopped off ears or made really nasty movies.

Additionally, wars of ideology raged as many artists identified with civil rights and justice issues, finding themselves in opposition to the old guard (a.k.a. the “bourgeoisie”). Then toss some academics and writers into the mix who began to link art with dissent.

(Permission granted by Carlos Latuff, anti-U.S. artist)

At this point, artists who are not opposed to middle-class values, patriotism and Judeo-Christian belief are less welcome in certain galleries and art schools. Of course, this is not particularly endearing to large segments of the American public.

So to this day, bad blood from the Reformation and the effects of communism still haunt the art world. Instead of resolution, the gulf widens because of publicity and honors given to artists that many find offensive or are just “acting stupid” (more on that later).

I also have a pet theory concerning the current low regard of artists and its connection to pop culture. But I’ll examine this theory more next week.

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