'Art Is Not the Most Important Thing'/ Ivana Brehas

'Art Is Not the Most Important Thing'/ Ivana Brehas

Ivana's article engages with a widespread contemporary polemic concerning moral separation between the artist and their artifice. Her piece contends that art is above all else, a phenomenon which ought to promote something beyond itself and the artist's own person. According to Ivana, underlying the artistic process we should find an ethics of compassion which is concerned not with self-enlargement, but rather, with the world and those who inhabit it. 

"In his 1957 Nobel Banquet speech, Albert Camus said, “For myself, I cannot livevwithout my art. But I have never placed it above everything.” To place one’s art above everything is a dangerous act. It is hubris; monomania romanticized as ‘true artistry’. To place one’s art above everything is to lose perspective. To place one’s art above everything is to place it above humanity.


The life of an artist can be intense and passionate, a life guided by a primal urge to express oneself. For artists who are powerful, successful, or privileged, it can also be a life full of sycophants. It is easy, in this environment, for the artist to allow their ego to go unchecked. Convinced of the ultimate importance of their art, the artist resolves to realise their vision at all costs, by any means necessary. Consequently, ethics and compassion are deprioritised. Living beings become collateral damage in a monomaniacal pursuit of artistic greatness. Abuse is excused and creative prowess becomes a get-out-of-accountability-free card. This pattern of self-absorption has prevailed in the art world for years, largely unchallenged.


In recent years, victims of this ideology have had their voices amplified, revealing the damage that comes from placing art above everything. As the chorus of voices has grown, we have heard the same excuse, over and over again: the art is more important. We are told to separate the art from the abusive artist. We are told to forgive the abusive artist, because they are under a lot of stress. Hurting others, we are told, is the hallmark of the tormented master–the true culprit here is the great burden of their genius. And how could anyone advocate for a world in which we are denied this genius? But there is something we need to admit: art is not the most important thing. It is certainly not more important than compassion.


The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, and art is not unimportant — indeed, art can generate compassion. But to view art as the most important thing implies that any abuse endured in its creation is ‘worth it’. To speak up when an artist inflicts pain on you is therefore ‘selfish’. Making art the most important thing justifies abuse, framing people’s pain as a necessary ‘sacrifice’ in the service of something ‘greater’. But it is art that should be in the service of something greater; it is not an end in itself, but a means by which we can foster compassion.


This is not to say that artists should suppress all of their idiosyncrasies, but rather that the gulf between quirky and abusive behaviour is a vast one. It’s okay to indulge in an off-beat ‘process’ – as long as it doesn’t hurt others. According to legend, Victor Hugo had all his clothes locked away so that he would not be able to go outside until he had finished writing. His process was peculiar, but harmless. We must be able to differentiate between an eccentric artist and someone using their quirky-artist persona as an excuse to infringe on the wellbeing and autonomy of others. Prioritizing an artistic ‘process’ over ethics and compassion is a selfish and irrational act.


More pertinently: though we all have our processes, good artists are adaptable and relaxed, despite what our cultural mythology claims. It is a falsehood that greatness necessitates tyranny. The good artist does not have to choose between empathy and artistry, because they know they can (and must) have both. If you ‘have to’ be abusive and manipulative in order to do your work; if hurting others is part of your ‘process’, perhaps you should not be making art at all. I am not afraid of the hypothetical alternate timeline in which we lost great works of art because we didn’t let the artist traumatise people. The most important thing is not to be great, but to be good."

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