Image: Will Calcutt/flickr

Why are some artists famous?

Once artists reach a certain level of critical acclaim or fame, they are subject to intense scrutiny and often criticism, due to the subjective nature of art itself. One spectator’s reaction of excitement towards a painting is valued as equally as the next spectator’s reaction of despair. It therefore becomes very difficult to define what makes an artist ‘good’ and subsequently ‘famous’.

Earlier in the year Grayson Perry tackled this controversial topic in his much talked about exhibition titled ‘The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever’. In the exhibition, Perry directly confronts the notion of the ‘famous artist’ through his use of social media and topical political affairs as platforms for the inspiration for his artwork. Instead of shying away from the public eye and popular culture – as many artists such as Damien Hirst sadly do, in order to avoid berating – Perry calls upon this chastisement as a vehicle to scrutinize other social controversies.

Once artists reach a certain level of critical acclaim or fame, they are subject to intense scrutiny and often criticism

If we look at Damien Hirst again as an example, many artists have become ‘famous’ due to the shocking and sometimes disturbing nature of their artwork. Hirst often marries grotesque and uncomfortable objects with valuable and desirable counterparts, which simultaneously attracts and repulses his audience. Demonstrating this relationship is Hirst’s 2007 sculpture, ‘For the Love of God’, a platinum cast of an 18th century human skull which is encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. There is an uneasy synergy between a worthless human skull and the extremely valuable and cherished diamond. Hirst’s sculpture gained even more awareness when it sold for the asking price of £50 million, which begs us to question whether fame is determined by shock value and expense.

Ironically, an artist’s anonymity often greatly contributes to the fame of their work and to the artist’s own identity, as proven by the mysterious Banksy. By shying away from the public eye and from the very notion of fame, Banksy has become the centre of an international Cluedo hunt, with more and more people claiming to have found or even to be the artist itself. This enigma is made even more scandalous when we consider the artistic medium in which he/she works: graffiti. Perhaps the artist remains unidentified because their art form has always been, and continues to be, a crime. Banksy’s art form functions in the opposite manner to Hirst’s, as the artist must first enter into the public sphere to find his canvas before he can even begin to create. What’s more, Banksy’s work is priceless as it cannot be bought or sold, and this potentially contributes to the fame of the artist. Banksy’s graffiti cannot become an item for one to possess; we are therefore kept at a distance from the artwork, yet anyone is invited to witness and take pleasure in it.

Ironically, an artist’s anonymity often greatly contributes to the fame of their work

Despite working in completely different art forms, and the artwork of one having an extraordinarily expensive price-tag, whilst the other’s artwork can never be acquired, both Hirst and Banksy have obtained an untouchable and almost unintelligible social status. Therefore, regardless of an artist’s role in the public eye, what ultimately makes them famous and popular is their ability to leave us asking questions and wanting more.

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