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'The Starving artist': the concept of being ahead of your time 

by Anna Lambert

van gogh self portrait.jpg

To be ahead of your time can be seen as a condition of misalignment to the ethos of the society which you find yourself in. The condition of being unaligned is an easy condition to find yourself in when dealing with a concept so fundamentally subjective as art. Just as art is subjective, the state of a ‘starving artist’ can be temperamental; the impermanent state of cultural climates contribute to the phenomena of the artist being ahead of their time as changing popular cultures and feelings create new opportunities for posthumous success.


An artist who is considered great in their time has the ability to use popular feelings to establish relationships between their work and an audience; their work is able to interpret popular feelings into states of visual portrayal and so their work gains a sense of relatability. An artist who is not considered great in their time, but is rather left ‘starving’, suffers from a lack of relatability. The link between relatability and popularity lead to an artistic need to capture the ‘now’, and those who starve do so due to capturing the wrong moment. But the ‘now’ is temperamental, and so is the state of being starved. An artist ahead of their time captures a future sense of human understanding and as cultural landscapes and human thought shifts, their art has the opportunity for its captured moment to reflect the new ‘now’. Relatability can be gained.


The idea of an artist capturing forthcoming cultural phenomena raises many points of discussion. It can be implied that artists ahead of their time retain more timeless qualities than those who were able to capture the prevalent moments of their time, as these careers become anchored to a specific and momentary culture. The work of an artist who is deemed ahead of their time is not defined by any particular popular feeling, and so its potential to became aged and outdated is weakened, and its potential to witness enduring popularity is strengthened. The risk becomes that of audiences giving these artists prognostic abilities. This is enough for some critics to argue that the concept of an artist ahead of their time does not exist, as it claims a greater amount of human agency than is possible and gives artists power that transcends that of human capability. It is a grounding idea; I do not believe that it fully argues against the existence of such a phenomena but it does humble the artist and the critic into accepting the agency of luck; the luck that society shifted to a place where their art could resonate with a wider audience, for some ‘starving artists’ will always remain so.


Of course, to ask whether you can still be ahead of your time in our current society is a currently unanswerable question. Although the expansion of public history and art has allowed art to reach wider audiences outside of the elitist structure that it was once confined to, future information and hindsight which would be needed to further explore this idea are not benefits that our limited human power allow us to procure. The knowledge that there are those out there that may be revered by future societies but will remain unknown by those presently is just something that societies in their present states have to accept, without the opportunity to regret.   

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