The Myth of the Solitary Artist

“artists are influenced by the work of every other artist they see.”

There was once a worldly man, concerned chiefly with his own success and achievements, who questioned the nature of Heaven and Hell. One night he had a vision. In the vision an angel appeared to him and told him, “I have come to show you Hell.”

In an instant the man and the angel stood in a large cavern. In the middle of the cavern was a large pot full of stew. It's aroma filled the cavern. “It smells delicious,” said the man. 

Around the stewpot sat a ring of people with long handled spoons. With the spoons they could reach the stew but the handles were longer than their arms and so they could not bring the spoons back to their mouths to eat. The people sitting around the pot were suffering greatly, hungry, emaciated, and miserable. 


“Now I will show you Heaven,” said the angel.

In the flicker of a thought the scene changed subtly. They were still in a cavern with a pot of delicious smelling stew. The pot was still surrounded by people with long handled spoons. But the difference was that here, the people looked well fed, happy, and were talking cheerfully with one another. 

“I don't understand,” said the man, “in the other place the people were starving and miserable, here they are happy and content. What has made the difference?”

“Here,” said the angel, “they have learned to feed each other.”

Our “today” is different from the “today” of ancient Israel. While they were a people who wept and rejoiced in the hearing of the law, we are a people incorporated into the Body of Christ. The first century Judeans were individual members of a community, but we are interrelated members of the same Body of Christ. We are all dependent upon each other. Saint Paul explains what this means when he tells us “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body.” 1 Cor 12:12

American society tends to celebrate the individual, to prize the pioneering spirit. But as Christians we are asked to see things differently than the rest of the world. There are no individuals there is only the one undivided Body. Those qualities that separate us, our different-ness, is not for us as individuals, but is intended for the good of the entire Body. Every part of the body contributes something to the good of the whole.

There is a popular myth in America of the solitary artist. This is the idea that the solitary artistic genius must toil away, undisturbed by others and influenced by no one other than his (or her) own creative muse.

But this is not at all the reality.

One of the standard questions that interviewers will often ask an artist is, “what other artists have influenced your work?” And the artist being interviewed will obligingly rattle off the names of several artists, living and dead, who helped develop his artistic vision.

But the truth is that artists are influenced by the work of every other artist they see. Even the greatest artists learn from each other.

In the 1965 movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” the Renaissance artist Michelangelo is engaged in a battle of wills with the pope. At one point Michelangelo falls ill and the pope is taken to view the work of the young Raphael. The pontiff enters the room of the Apostolic Palace to see Raphael's put the finishing touches on his great fresco, “The School of Athens.” The pope studies the painting and then remarks to the painter, “I see that you've been to the Sistine Chapel, Master Raphael.”

“Yes, your holiness.”

Artists note what succeeds and fails in each other's work, as well as what they might like to try in a different way. They are influenced by their teachers, what they read, the work of other artists both living and dead, and all the art they see and read about. Artists steal, copy, reinterpret, emulate and build upon the work of each other. It is just what creative people do.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Impressionism had a profound impact on the art of Western Europe. But Impressionism itself was heavily influenced by the Japanese arts that trading ships were beginning to bring back from the once secluded island.

Every artist reacts to what is around him as well as what came before. Artistic vision operates within a community. This is not only true of visual arts, but the performing arts as well as just about every other artistic discipline. Nor are the arts unique in this, scientists build on the work of those that came before them.

All of our gifts, talents, and abilities are not given to us for our own use. They are pieces of a whole, and all are necessary for the body of the community to function properly.

We live in the ever present “today” of Christ, we live for Him, and for each other. Each of us has been given a specific task, a task that is necessary and irreplaceable for the well being of the entire community. We may never know the extent to which that task affects the rest of the community. But we can be certain it does have an effect. When we accept this task, when the foot stops trying to be an eye and sees the value in being a foot, then we truly begin to live outside of ourselves, in love for all and for the One. 

Pax Vobiscum
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at and can be reached at