The guru syndrome

October 10, 2008

Robert Genn

Dear Rodney,

Over the past week a few artists have written asking what I meant by "the guru syndrome." It's my own term to describe people (like me) who get a kick out of trying to help others. In a broader sense, folks with the guru syndrome range from spiritual pundits, quasi-religious figures, to charismatic wiz-bangs like Tony Robbins. Some have degrees in psychology and others are self-anointed.

The art game is loaded with them. They range from coaches, mentors, teachers, workshoppers and professional art-workers who just want to share their experience for whatever it's worth. Books, TV, seminars and the Internet are some of the traditional guru vehicles. Some gurus, I'm sorry to say, are pretty much charlatans, or at least amateurs themselves, who provide glib, lightweight solutions to their insecure and vulnerable disciples.

That being said, the great principle of growth and improvement is the helping reach of others. This sort of brotherly love and sharing is hard-wired in the human soul, and some of us have it in spades. To become one of these gurus, one needs only to have the perceived imprimatur of authority. The main job of nascent artists is to determine who the truly authoritative ones are. In the jungle of human engagement, glitz and appearance often trump content. Further, and unfortunately, many seekers just feel secure in environments of mediocrity.

Glitz often includes the speedy solutions of attitudinal devices. Woo-woo is okay, but in our game, practical, hard-won and personally interpreted processes are key. Beware of the art-guru who goes not there.

I was rereading the guruship of Charles Reid's "Painting What You Want to See." I wondered about the motivation of this remarkable painter. He takes you into the very recesses of his painting mind. Talking about lightening darks with colours other than white, allowing areas to accept the temperature of adjacent areas, carrying compositions with clear local colours and interactive patterns--this is inspiration that one might not get from someone strutting across a stage or sitting cross-legged by a Nepalese cave. But it is an example of the guru syndrome of the highest order--sharing without expectation and giving the details of a personal process and how to interact with your own work at hand. 'Scuse me, but some painters ought to have tattoos made of Charles's stuff.

Best regards,


PS: "Wonderful things can happen if you put your brush down and let your painting be your teacher." (Charles Reid)

Esoterica: How to handle gurus? Be promiscuous. Don't sign up for anything long term. Learn and move on. In the old days recognized masters fingered talented folks and worked with them, often without charge. Some students became apprentices and were kicked out when they didn't perform. This tradition has all but died out. Nowadays, gurus are in the guru business for profit. Many of the best ones are right under your nose in books. With books you can edit your gurus, allow them to pontificate on your own schedule, and dump them when you outgrow them.