“What is good art?” is a standard philosophical quandary that never really goes very far as long as there’s a relativist in the room (and there usually is). With art more than most things it’s harder to argue that its goodness isn’t in the eye of the beholder. A better question is “What is required to make good art?” And that, I argue, is at least two things: authenticity and anonymity.
A good artist is authentic. We need not argue exactly what “authentic” means to proceed; just to agree what it’s not. It’s not pandering to the masses. It’s not for increasing social status. It’s not from desiring praise. If it happens to be for anybody at all, it’s incidental to the artist’s need to express. And if it’s to be judged, an artist should prefer it be on its own merit. And that’s where anonymity comes in.
Artists should be anonymous not simply because it doesn’t matter who the artist is (with some exceptions), but because it enables authenticity in both the artist and the audience. The anonymous artist is free to express without their identity being tied to success or failure, and they cannot doubt their own intentions.
Let’s take for granted that good art, beyond mere technical skill, is an expression of the artist’s soul. It relates to some part heretofore unknown to ourselves, or gets us thinking about something familiar in a new way. Whether or not it is understood depends on the experiences the artist/audience has had in their lives (in this way they are equals – an artist is not to be revered). It’ll either be gotten or not – and not everyone will get it because not everyone will get the artist, and that’s ok. But for the artist who has made themselves one with their art for public consumption and judgement, the failure of the art to connect is internalized and externalized as a failure of the artist. This giving-of-fucks is like poison and will lead the artist down a path of angst and dissatisfaction, not to mention bad art.
Another reason artists should remain anonymous is to reduce the amount of career artists who are making art for the wrong reasons. Artists need to have an existence that is not primarily about making art for the sake of it. If someone is locked in a contract or becomes too focused on maintaining their brand or income stream, then they cease to be authentic, and if they are creating at the expense of living, then they cease to be relatable. Art should be the byproduct of experience; an experience of life as we know it – through the artist’s eyes. Their gift to us.
But anonymity is really more for the benefit of the audience than the artist. The general audience is so impressionable that if they see, hear, or read something unfamiliar, they naturally look to other markers for how to react. The artists preexisting works, reputation, or other such subconscious biases might influence their perception of the art. When J.K. Rowling released her adult crime/fiction novel under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”, she was hoping to bring the focus back to the work; to, as she says, “work without hype or expectation and receive totally unvarnished feedback.” As a result, the book was read and reviewed, came and went, entirely on its own merit.
We must not conflate the art with the artist. We must focus our attention on the art itself and judge it according to our own aesthetic sensibilities – which we must continually develop by seeking art out where it’s hiding or being overshadowed; choosing what to be exposed to rather than passively letting ourselves be exposed to whatever is front and center. As many of us know, that’s not where the best art is.
Popularity is the enemy of our and society’s aesthetic development. The more popular an artist becomes the more their name is spread around and passed down without people actually coming into direct contact with the work but feeling like they know its quality already, the more automatic exposure they will get before even producing, and the more people will be tricked into thinking that good art necessarily comes from popular artists.
With artists as anonymous, each work of art will be judged with no other reference point but itself, and the art that survives will be the art that deserves to.