Today I was talking with a friend of mine. He is an anonymous artist who draws abstract forms in black ink. For the last year he has been photocopying his drawings (using an old analogue xerox machine) then going out at night to paste them on London walls, usually back-alleys and out-of the-way corners. Now he's taken out a bank loan to fund his new project - he is going to collect some of his drawings into a photocopied booklet, make a few thousand copies and distribute them free.
He calls himself an artist, in the old style, saying he has dedicated his life to art. I asked him what this means, what he wants to achieve. The discussion reminded me a lot of some of the discussions on this wiki about creativity, conversation and publishing.
He gave two answers. Firstly, he talked about self-expression and cited Kandinsky, who believed (I think) that art arises from 'inner necessity'.
My friend admits that he wants his work to have effects on other people - spark reactions and ideas in their heads, feed their 'inner necessities', influence other peoples' creative acts. But he thinks that the best way to spark interesting or momentous reactions to your work is just to open yourself up to free expression of 'inner necessity', and not think about what effect the work will have.
He strongly believes that the traditional career path for an artist - art schools, networking, exhibitions, everything known as the 'art world' - leads in the wrong direction. On the one hand, the 'named' artist comes to seek reputation, wealth, fame, rather than free expression. On the other, the audience gets misdirected by name and reputation and is less open to interesting reactions sparked by the work itself.
Ideally, the artist would be anonymous and he would take no interest at all in reactions to his work. He would just turn it out blind. In that case there is only one goal for the committed artist - keep on working and distributing.
I said I thought few artists would be able to keep to such a punishing regime. We all crave some kind of recognition, at least we hope to see some ripples from the ideas we toss out.
Maybe a more realistic model for my friend is an anonymous artist who still keeps an eye on reactions to his work. I don't know about visual arts but there are plenty of examples in literature. I was thinking of the writer BTraven who received his royalties and recognition under his nom de plume but lived in anonymity in Mexico. (There is the story of BTraven's sending his agent Hal Croves to keep an eye on the set of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but of course Croves was the man himself.)
There are different degrees of anonymity. BTraven (who I think has now been definitely identified with a German anarchist called Ret Marut) was still a reputation, a continuous personality running through his novels, a recurring name stamped on the covers. You could go a step further and keep switching noms de plume, or use no names. You could go even further still and deliberately change style and focus to keep the audience off your scent, but then anonymity would itself become a diversion from free expression.
Fascinating story. I'd say, a pseudonym is definitely an identity. I guess the thing about your anonymous friend is that his identity is very diffuse. It really needs people to notice several of the works, notice their similarity, and then conclude that they are the works of the same artist. Most people won't notice.
I'm quite agree that the traditional career path of the artist, like most traditional career paths that depend on validation by institutions, is more and more a route to dead-end mediocrity. But I don't equate that with not wanting some kind of audience response. Surely all systems need feedback of some kind, and artistic activity isn't an exception. I accept a lot of audiences don't get what you do, and would like you to do something less interesting and more conservative. But I can't believe that you can function completely hermetically.
BTW : are you really going to let him take out a bank loan to make a book he'll give away free? How will he repay it (+ interest?)