Nuria Peist
Art historian and researcher.

‘ Profession: Artist. Storm, Impetus, and Biography’
Contribution to the catalogue of the exhibition Cristina Garrido. The Origin of Forms. Ed. Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo - CA2M (2024).

It’s all to do with questions I ask myself.

—Cristina Garrido1

Being an artist. It’s a thought-provoking expression. As in all professions and trades, the criteria that define and delimit the career of the creator are laden with values and connotations that can be considered, analyzed, organized, criticized, or even ignored. But, for some reason, it would seem that the realm of the artist is more difficult to pin down than most and somewhat trickier to define. In the West, the figure of the artist has prompted studies of all kinds: some of them focus on the importance of talent and the idea of vocation, while others, on the polar opposite, denounce the mythification of the figure of the genius. Perhaps the question that best sums up this debate comes from popular wisdom: “Is being an artist a matter of nature or nurture?” There are, of course, many very different intermediate positions between these two poles. For example, some claim that talent is necessary in order to develop the capacity for invention, but so too is having the means to access a particular social space that is, in certain fi elds and times, highly valued. Therefore, it is a question of bearing in mind the abilities that a person might possess, the possibilities that life has given to them, and, furthermore, the time and place in which they happen to have been born.

But the analyses aren’t always strictly situated. Some researchers have investigated the impact made by the figure of the genius, and the great many refl ections that this figure has inspired over time. In this case, the artist is associated with creation, whereby creation refers to “genius” as a particular human ability that can be delimited. As early as 1934, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz traced the legends, myths, and stereotypical anecdotes about creators from the ancient world, as well as the recurring qualities in the biographies of modern-era artists: these included innate talent manifested from a young age, constant obstacles, humble origins, being self-taught, magic, virtue, superiority . . . These faculties partly stem from the early legend that human beings are able to create things in God’s own image and likeness, and such skills are increasingly associated with artists from the Renaissance onwards. As Kris and Kurz state, if they exist, these constants depend on the era in question:

Neither the various qualities and dispositions which give rise to “talent” and the impulse to artistic creativity, nor the role that the artist plays in any given society, derive from a fixed set of conditions. Rather, they are subject to innumerable modifications, which can be understood only in the light of the historical situation.2

History repeats and is modified in the same situation. Human beings might think of themselves as exceptional, and the figure of the artist assumes this excellence under given conditions. But, therefore, is this—as the title of Kris and Kurz’s book claims—just legend? Myth and anecdote reveal characteristics not so much of the life of the artist as of how they are thought of, which changes over time. And—most importantly—this consideration is manifested practically in many different ways, be they more or less collective, more or less organized, more or less stable. In their evocatively-titled Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, Rudolf and Margot Wittkower point out the similarities in the conception of the artist in fourth-century Greece and fi fteenth-century Renaissance Italy. Despite the fact that, in ancient times, the individualization of the artist was already underway, the wider public was not particularly occupied by it. Following some transformations, turns, and particularities in the Hellenistic period and the Middle Ages, it is only in the Renaissance that the public begins to take a keen interest in the artist as an individual.3

Masters of Western Painting – Giotto, Fuga in Egitto, 2023. Acrylic on poster; 70 x 70 cm. 

Nevertheless, this interest never fully materialized in the earlymodern period. Although artists gradually began to separate from the guilds—in some cases, defiantly so—there were still a great many doubts when it came to distinguishing art from craftsmanship. Michelangelo’s father famously opposed his son’s desire to become a sculptor, a profession which, due to the physical effort required, was associated with quarry work. Even later, during the heyday of academic life, the bourgeoisie was reticent about artistic practice being associated with the liberal arts. But, in this case, their rejection gradually took on another form: namely the repudiation of the bohemian life that a part of that same bourgeoisie represented. In light of these considerations, Kris and Kurz’s proposal becomes more precise—it can be deduced from their words that, despite the fact that the concept of the creative genius has been present throughout different eras, such figures were never before regarded in the institutionalized sense represented by Academia, nor in the same vocational way as them modern artist. The Wittkowers even go on to suggest the historicity of the individual experience of those born under the sign of Saturn, stating that cultural trends have a determining impact on the formation and development of character.4 Thus, the lived experience and appreciation of the artist’s temperament, along with the mythification of their life story, do exhibit certain constants, but they have also changed over time.

Let’s come back to the present day. Specifically, to a place and time where these questions are still being put to us: Móstoles, a municipality in the region of Madrid, Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo, The Origin of Forms exhibition, by Cristina Garrido, June 10, 2023 – January 28, 2024. Here, the artist pondersmquestions similar to those of the aforementioned authors and, whatmis even more interesting, she does so with a similar methodology. The biographical accounts in this exhibition set the rhythm for the appreciation of the work of art—hence its suggestive title—and for the research into those factors that had a decisive infl uence on the careers of artists. On display are biographies of great masters of painting that look into the psychological, material, and social aspects that might have infl uenced the consecration of some of these great proponents of Western art. But Garrido also inserts her own biography into this tradition. Both timeframes—that of history and that of this particular artist—are combined in this project, in which the biographical details show the artists’ work in a veiled way, almost hiding it, in an inverse manner to what normally happens. The usual marveled and erudite perception of the work of art means that the actual conditions which enable artists to become artists often get overlooked. According to Nathalie Heinich, the contemporary view of art oscillates between two poles: at one end is the person —the domain of uninitiated consideration—and at the other is the work—the domain of specialists. In the former case, biographical information makes the work itself even more interesting, as with Van Gogh and his severed ear. In the latter, biographical information is considered irrelevant, as opposed to the aesthetic evaluation and careful scrutiny of the artwork itself.5

Installation detail of the exhibition Cristina Garrido. El origen de las formas. Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo - CA2M (Móstoles, 2023). Image: Roberto Ruiz.

Even just a cursory glance at the past shows that the rise to prominence of the artist was due, above all, to their association with the work of art. The notion of authorship is one of the clearest indications of the importance of the artist’s name. The anonymous works of the medieval period were either the result of a collective effort in the workshop or skillful works of craftsmanship made following the correctly-applied norms, as learned during their creators’ training and experience in the trade. As the figure of the modern artist was gradually defi ned over time—a fi gure increasingly associated with creativity, vocation, and singularity—the artwork and the artist became inseparable. However, we see that the part of the artist that comes through is not that of the common person, of their human relationships, their sense of belonging, their feelings, virtues, and miseries. What remains, instead, is the extraordinary part, that of the exceptional figure whose actions as an individual must be ignored, no matter how atrocious they might be.6 Either that or, in any case, their actions must be assimilated into the work in a process—especially in the case of women artists—of aestheticization and intellectualization.

Let us return to our artist. As we have seen, Cristina Garrido represents the opposite. This is attested to by the works of art that have been printed and then almost completely covered, leaving phrases that narrate biographical details of the artists in question. And also by the way in which Garrido reveals her own personal trajectory before her more or less mature entry into the contemporary art world. Here, the operation is not only about interrogating what an artist is considered to be—from within the tradition of institutional critique, Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of domination, and the sociology of recognition—but it also asks what kind of biographical factors contribute to an artist consolidating as such. In the presentation video for the exhibition, Garrido explains that this project derives from a previous one entitled The Best Job in the World, which included testimonies from eight people who, for some reason or other, abandoned the artistic profession.

Installation view of the exhibition The Best Job in the World. Fundación DIDAC (Santiago de Compostela, 2021). Image: Roi Alonso.

Questioning how reality works through artistic practice generates a dual effect. On the one hand, this approach shines a spotlight on relatively dark and uncomfortable places while, on the other, it also helps the artistic profession take on a social function: to be concerned, for example, with human wellbeing. The key aspect of Garrido’s works is the questions she opens up. She provides no answers but rather invites us to reflect. The biographical details she selects—taken from authorized sources, such as the Encyclopædia Britannica or the Prado Museum—do not refer to individual anecdotes but rather, as with Kris and Kurz’s contribution, reveal a collective imaginary that repeats itself again and again: tragic life, humble origins, family support, a network of contacts, comfortable social status, and so on. Is it biographical writing itself that positions artists in stereotypical places such as these, or is it that the effective life of the artist comes of age in the modern era? Can any of these details tell us about the material requirements for accessing this type of life? Let us consider how Garrido presents herself in the exhibition.

As in many works of contemporary art, in The Origin of Forms the artist’s own trajectory becomes a work of art in its own right. But, in this case, new questions emerge when the artist’s life is exposed. Through videos and photographs, Garrido shows us different artrelated moments, people, objects, and spaces that were present during her early years: we see museum trips, her relatives painting, the artist herself drawing, paintings in her childhood homes, artworks belonging to her family hanging on the walls of the museum space . . .  And there is one particularly curious item: a 1:1 scale plan of the basement her father bought for her when she was studying Fine Arts. The plan is stuck to the fl oor, so that visitors tread on it as they visit the exhibition. The conclusion might seem obvious to us: ever since her childhood, Cristina Garrido has been in possession of artistic capital and the keen support of her family, which is why she has been able to put on this exhibition. But it’s not quite so straightforward. Her dialogue with the masterpieces of the Western tradition is perhaps the key, here. Will Cristina Garrido be inscribed in history? The answer lies not so much in her talent but rather in her situation, in the broader framework of which she is part.

Installation view of the exhibition Cristina Garrido. The Origin of Forms. Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo - CA2M (Móstoles, 2023). Image: Roberto Ruiz.

In “The Heir and the Cowboy: Social Predisposition, Mediation and Artistic Profession in Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock,”I questioned whether possessing more or less capital could have a direct infl uence on a given artist’s chances of making it, in relative terms, in the art world. On the one hand, it is undeniable that having particular stimuli and contacts increases an individuals’ chances of gaining access to spaces that are relatively homologous to previous trajectories. But this equation does not have a simple solution. The course of a life has a great many variations, learnings, shifts, and twisting paths: life does not follow a straight line in one sole direction. In the case of Pollock, his unique trajectory is more the result of his particular way of relating to the environment —especially to those involved in the art world at that time—than to an unprecedented career characterized by the lack of means, contacts, and skills needed to get by in a given medium. Duchamp, given his position, was able to do without all the profuse mediation enjoyed by Pollock. But both artists reached similar levels of recognition. Having said that, the equation of the higher the degree of capital ownership, the less need for mediation to help stabilize the profession doesn’t work either. If we were to venture an answer —which, fi ttingly, Garrido does not in her exhibition—we could say that the only relatively certain formula is having an awareness of the systemic diversity of components to be taken into consideration: complete trajectories, positions, values, relationships with agents and institutions, historical variants, both in the specifi c composition of spaces and in the less immediate context. Only then will we be able to understand what makes an artist and the constants and variables that might come up at any given time.

The legend of the difficult, spontaneous, and melancholic artist still looms over us. And this is partly so because that figure was established as a very simple, pervasive cliché, one that refers to the artist’s distinctness and self-referencing. Questions such as those suggested in The Origin of Forms enable us not only to think about the access conditions to artistic spaces but also to reconsider what kind of values and judgments we want to live by in our everyday collective life.

1. Cristina Garrido, presentation video for the exhibition The Origin of Forms (Museo CA2M, 10.6.2023 – 28.1.2024).

2. Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979 [1934]), pp. 1−2.

3. See Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists (New York: New York Review of Books, 2007 [1963]).

4. Ibid.

5. See Nathalie Heinich, La gloire de Van Gogh. Essai d’anthropologie de l’admiration (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1991), pp. 98−101.

6. See Gisèle Sapiro, ¿Se puede separar la obra del autor? Censura, cancelación y derecho al error (Madrid: Clave Intelectual, 2021).

7. See Nuria Peist, “The Heir and the Cowboy: Social Predisposition, Mediation and Artistic Profession in Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock,” Cultural Sociology, 6/2 (2012), pp. 233−250.