Artists Behaving Strangely

Why do so many artists behave so strangely? If their odd-looking work isn’t enough to make us scratch our heads, their weird behavior confirms our suspicions that they are charlatans, getting away with artistic murder in a laissez-faire and degenerate art world in which personality and image are more important than the quality of their work. No one resembles this portrait of the strangely behaving artist better than Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Everything about him, from his odd appearance, aloof personality, enigmatic statements, and strange collection of friends and associates gives the impression that “Warhol” was a fabrication for media consumption, an act, a ruse. Either he was a creative genius—brilliantly creative beyond our comprehension—or a marketing genius—brilliantly entrepreneurial of the P.T. Barnum variety.

But perhaps Warhol’s and other artists’ strange behavior is not due to their creative or marketing genius but a profoundly human response to a serious problem that all artists, in one way or another, face on a daily basis.

The Anxiety of the Art World

A painting is a weak and vulnerable thing because it is just not necessary. Smelly oil paint smeared across a canvas cannot be justified in this conditional, transactional world. Yet vast, complex institutions and networks have emerged to do just that, whether through the auction house (art as priceless luxury item), the museum tour (education), or the local chamber of commerce (art as community service, cultural tourism, or urban revival). That art is ultimately gratuitous, that its existence is a gift to the world, creates anxiety and insecurity in the art world. Everyone involved, from art collectors and dealers to critics and curators have to justify their interest in this seemingly “useless” activity—and justify the money they make or spend on its behalf. Art simply cannot be justified.

What makes matters worse is that no one knows what makes a great work of art great anyway, or if that work or this work is great. Even the experts don’t agree. Moreover, the art collectors, the millionaires and billionaires who drive the art world and whose own pursuit of art is powerful form of self-justication, are the most anxious and most confused of the whole lot. And so collectors must rely on their retinue of dealers, curators, and critics for confirmation. If a collector is going to spend several hundred thousand dollars on dirt and pigment smeared on a canvas, she better feel comfortable in her “investment.” And so curators, critics, and dealers are desperately looking for markers other than the painting itself  to assuage the collector’s insecurity.

The Artist

Yet for an artist to make a living, these smeared canvases need to be shown, written about, and purchased. In short, these precarious, vulnerable, useless artifacts, which no one is really sure have any “objective” value, or are any good, need to operate as currency in a conditional world, a transactional economy. Yet the work the artist produces operates in direct contradiction to this “reality.”

Artists know this precarious situation. It is they who realize, consciously or not, that the works they produce in their studios are vulnerable out in the world, wonder whether the work they do is any good or possesses any lasting value. And this is especially so for those artists whose work is represented by the world’s top dealers, shown at the world’s most important museums, written about in the world’s most important art magazines, and in the collections of the world’s most powerful art collectors. These are the artists, I would suggest, who feel the insignificance of their work most acutely and the pressure of the conditionality of the art world most strongly.

Their work needs help. And so many artists cultivate a certain kind of behavior—craft a social role—that simultaneously justifies and protects their work, offering a marker for art collectors, curators, dealers, and critics, while releasing them of the burden to have to explain or defend each work they produce. This is not, however, a new development. It has been a part of the western artistic tradition since the Renaissance, when painters began to claim that art belonged to the “liberal arts” (philosophy, theology, poetry) and not the “mechanical arts” (trades). The intellectual; the businessman; the scientist; the engineer; the prophet or priest; the entertainer or rock star are just a few of the myriad of social roles that artists have adopted throughout the history of art. These roles, which require tremendous effort by artists to develop and maintain, help legitimate the work by generating a justifying “aura,” providing art collectors, curators, and dealers sufficient validation to pay attention to the work they produce. Sometimes they work. Yet sometimes they don’t.

In this prison house of creative self-expression called the art world, where, following Sartre, everyone is “condemned to freedom,” the artist must wear a mask and engage in a game of high stakes poker, appearing resistant and transcendent in the face of the contingent, transactional, and conditional nature of the art world.

Yet appearances, as Warhol knew so well, deceive. Behind the aloof, ironic, and “underground” Warhol mask was the weak and vulnerable Andrej Varchola, Jr., the Pittsburgh native, the son of a working class family who emigrated from Slovakia; a lifelong Byzantine Catholic who struggled with his faith in light of his sexual identity; a well-respected commercial designer who became a fine artist because of his interest in revealing and exploring this Andrej Varchola in his work; and a devoted friend and selfless promoter of young artists, like Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. This Andrej Varchola miraculously survived an attempted murder in 1968—a gunshot wound to the chest—the physical and psychological effects with which he struggled the remainder of his life, “gnawed within and scorched without,” as Melville describes Ahab. Warhol’s work, like his life, revealed the constant presence and judgment of death lurking around every corner in a culture that idolized youth, fame, freedom.  Warhol and Varchola died of cardiac arrest in 1986 after a routine gall bladder surgery, a surgery he put off because of his fear of doctors and hospitals after the trauma of his gunshot wound.

Warhol and You (and Me)

Warhol is a lot like you and me. He wasn’t a genius or a fake. He was profoundly, utterly human, justifying his work and his existence through the means available to him, and deeply insecure about its value in one of our culture’s most fickle, unpredictable, and insecure institutions: the contemporary art world.

So, when you are tempted to dismiss the contemporary art world as irrelevant because of the strange behavior of its artists, remember that their behavior is an admission that their work—what they spend their lives making and to which they are profoundly devoted and committed—is weak and vulnerable. And their personas are not only masks but the armor and weaponry that they are using in this suffocating art world to fight for it.

What masks do we wear, what armor do we put on, what social roles do we craft, and strange behavior do we cultivate to justify our own weak and vulnerable work?





  • Teona

    art collectors are GR8 ones

  • kalimsaki

    “He has no partner”

    Just as in His divinity and in His sovereignty God has no partner, He is One and cannot be many; so too He has no partner in His dominicality and in His actions and in His creating. It sometimes happens that a monarch is one, having no partner in his sovereignty, but in the execution of his affairs his officials act as his partners; they prevent everyone from entering his presence, saying: “Apply to us!”
    However, God Almighty, the Monarch of Pre-Eternity and Post-Eternity, has no partner in His sovereignty, just as He has no need for partners or helpers in the execution of His dominicality.
    If it were not for His command and will, His strength and power, not a single thing could interfere with another. Everyone can have recourse to Him directly. Since He has no partner or helper, no one seeking recourse can be told: “Stop! It is forbidden to enter His presence!”
    This phrase, therefore, delivers the following joyful announcement to the human spirit: the human spirit which has attained to faith may, without let or hindrance, opposition or interference, in any state, for any wish, at any time and in any place, enter the presence of the All-Beauteous and Glorious One, the One of power and perfection, who is the Pre-Eternal and Post-Eternal Owner of the treasuries of mercy, the treasuries of bliss, and may present its needs. Discovering His mercy and relying on His power, it will find perfect ease and happiness.

    From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi.

  • Dan Saunders

    Enjoyed this Daniel. Well stated.

  • Mark

    I’m sure this is true in some cases, but I wonder whether it is also true that the making of art is a response to inner struggle, and that the inner struggle also causes idiosyncratic behavior.

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      I think the inner struggle is an important part of it as well. Absolutely.

  • john

    Interesting stuff. I think Gerhard Richter, though a counterexample to the stereotype of the eccentric artist, is a data point in support of your thesis — maybe he’s comfortable being “normal” because he’s at peace with the fact that, in his words, “basically painting is idiocy.”

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      Richter is a great example. His role as “normal” has developed over the years as he’s “transcended” the anxiety of the art market. He had a very different role in the sixties through the eighties. His dealer Marian Goodman has had a huge impact on crafting this well-adjusted artist.

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  • sam

    it might be true that some artists feel this insecurity, i’d say
    most don’t. many artists justify the world itself through art.
    it’s what makes life worth living. i think the idiosyncratic
    behavior comes largely from the fact that artists have to
    train their brain to vomit up new concepts regularly.
    sorting through this amount of raw and mostly useless
    “thought stuff” makes artists weird.

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      The argument of my piece is that all human beings experience insecurity as an existential reality. Artists experience it in a particular way. I don’t deny that artistic practices are strange and there’s a good deal of truth in that, certainly. My goal was to suggest that Warhol, far from being weird, is a lot more similar to how we behave then we’d care to admit.

  • andyfrombrooklyn

    yes. i am a fine artist and teacher. a visual artist. a painter i got duped into this business by society. i had talent and was so funneled into the arts. everyday at school, i see beautifully and magically talented youth. they have been blessed with these useless skills. yes i suppose some will find commercial careers, but many i suspect not. and what of the skill to render as the eye sees. it is still seen by the everyday person as the number one visual artist skill, yet it is worth nothing in the digital age. so these kids are confused by the import and purpose of their skill and talent. so here i am at 47, underpaid and crazy, everyday trying to explain my purpose to myself and keep keeping on. and all i have left is the hope that there is some purpose to this quixotic existence. and who is to say really? who is to say? art store sales are booming. art school degrees are at record numbers. and art jobs are non existant. seems i am not alone in don quixoteville.

    • Daniel A. Siedell

      I feel your pain, man.

  • Anne Harris

    I’m an artist teaching in an art school. Mr. Siedell, you have missed the point. Your assumption that an artist’s appearance is a marketing strategy or a protective strategy is simply wrong. It shows that you know few to no artists personally; if you did you’d find their appearance and behavior ranges from eccentric to ordinary. Your choosing Andy Warhol as an example, with the assumption that he’s somehow typical, show’s that you’ve heard of very few artists, and therefor don’t know that even among wildly successful artists, their appearance and behavior ranges from eccentric to ordinary. Your assumption that artists feel they must justify their existence is also wrong. We exist, just like you do. We accept our existence and simply try to make the best of our lives using the abilities given to us, just like everybody else does. Your declaration that art is not a necessity and is therefor weak and vulnerable is also wrong. Art has existed as long as humanity has existed. The earliest evidence of our existence includes paintings on cave walls. An individual painting might be a delicate thing, but art will always exist. Creativity is a fundamental human drive, leading us not just to the Mona Lisa but to the moon.

    So, why do artists look and behave as they do? Because they can. There’s no dress code in the arts. That’s it. End of mystery.

    • aviglucci

      Daniel A. Siedell (M.A. SUNY-Stony Brook, Ph.D. University of Iowa) is Director of Theological & Cultural Practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Curator of, the on-line resource ministry of Tullian Tchividjian. Before joining the staff at Coral Ridge he spent fifteen years as an art history professor and museum curator, working on projects with such artists as Enrique Martínez Celaya, Robyn O’Neil, David Bates, and Chris Ware, among many others. He is the author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Baker Academic 2008). He is also at work with cultural theologian Willian Dyrness on a book for InterVarsity Press that explores the influence of Christianity on the development of modern art.


    Years ago, when I read that Primo Levy said there was a gray area in everything, even the SS, it changed my way of thinking about the world. There is truth in everything. Everything can be normal–with the exception of violence towards women, children and animals.

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