The Art or the Artist? by M.C. Tuggle



“John Wayne was no actor.”

Yes, that’s what she said! While working a crossword puzzle, my wife had asked me about Academy Award winners from the ‘60s, and I’d suggested the Duke. My response was met with the above inflammatory statement. (John Wayne wasn’t the answer to the puzzle, but in fact, he did win an Oscar in 1969 for True Grit.)

But my wife’s comment got me to thinking. No doubt a lot of people would agree with her. After all, John Wayne pretty much played the same role in all of his movies. When he portrayed Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, he was quoted in a press release that he’d decided to play the title character “as a gunfighter.”

Does that mean Wayne wasn’t really an actor? How about George C. Scott? Both men made a lot of movies that people enjoyed. And I think the reason people enjoyed those movies was in seeing how each actor adapted his latest role to his unique personality. Both men had monumental egos and an electric presence that filled every character they portrayed. There’s anticipation in seeing how they’d insert themselves into their role.

But there are polar opposites that are equally enjoyable to experience. Consider Christian Bale, or Meryl Streep, or Dustin Hoffman. Their talent lies in adapting themselves to the role. These actors dissolve into the personality of the character they portray. While watching them, you see Batman, or Irving Rosenfield, or Sarah, or Sophie, or Benjamin Braddock, or Louis Dega. The character being portrayed is so vivid, you don’t see the actor.

The elegant Fred Astaire was said to have vanished into the fluidity of his dance moves. James Cagney, on the other hand, with his bouncy, stiff-legged leaps and sprints, brought a prizefighter’s moves to the dance floor. One made you see the dance, the other made you see him. And both pulled in large — and appreciative — audiences.

Certain writers display similar approaches to their craft. Whenever I read The Grapes of Wrath, or Tortilla Flat, I’m carried away by the story, the characterization, and the beauty of the language. Those are the things I feel when I read a John Steinbeck piece. However, when I read Robert E. Howard, I see his fiery, tempestuous personality, whether the story is about Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, or Sailer Steve Costigan. And the same goes for The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf — you know you’re seeing Jack London, or aspects of him, on every thrilling page.

Piet Mondrian once declared that The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.” There’s a discipline in that approach, one that Meryl Streep, Fred Astaire, and John Steinbeck would agree with, that commands respect. The artist must get out of the way so the art can live.

But the other approach, that of George C. Scott, Robert E. Howard, and Jack London, also produces good art. John Lennon put it this way: “If being an egomaniac means I believe in what I do and in my art or music, then in that respect you can call me that… I believe in what I do, and I’ll say it.” The work of art is a means by which the artist makes his mark in the world, and through which he lives as long as the work endures.

The writer and mystic Thomas Merton once suggested a compromise, one which I believe comprises both approaches to creating and appreciating craft of all types: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” I agree.


M.C. Tuggle is a native North Carolinian whose ancestors arrived in the South in 1647. He majored in history and English, and completed his M.A. in English at Wake Forest University on a Wake Forest fellowship.

Find out more about him on his website.

4 thoughts on “The Art or the Artist? by M.C. Tuggle

  1. I love that quote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” That’s why I begin every day writing. I get to go to wondrous places in my mind. Can you imagine how much more peaceful the world would be if everyone spent time immersed in art? I’ve seen the calm it brings to children and how it centers adults.
    Life is one friggin’ amazing journey when you get to create.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Wayne was the consummate actor as long as the role had him doing what he would naturally be doing. He was insanely popular because what he would naturally want to do was what a large majority of the population would want to do. It wasn’t always what law or organized morality wanted. He didn’t stick to the law if the law wasn’t working and he wasn’t always a nice guy. He followed his own moral compass and was his own man.

    Because he was so perfectly typecast, we’ll never know how he’d have done as Hamlet. I suspect it would have been fun to watch.

    Whether it was an action-adventure role or a rom-com John Wayne was who most of the men in the country wanted to be. He was never physically helpless even though he died several times in his movies. He always died trying to accomplish something and usually accomplished it. Never morally confused even though he did a really good anti-hero when it was called for.

    Personally I think he should have gotten an Oscar for “The Shootist” as well as “True Grit”. He defined the archetype of the aging gunslinger/ronin with one last bit of greatness remaining before riding off into the sunset.


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