Being chronically curious about being human~or maybe about being me~ I am embarrassingly enough a sort of self-help book junkie. Not only self-help but philosophy, psychology, sociology. I like to figure out how things work.
This is to all say that when I came across this line in a self-help book recently…“I have come across people who are completely unable to believe that they can be artists or writers. “…I was not unfamiliar with what the author was putting forward but I was rather taken aback by the tone.
The sentence is written with the same emphasis one would use if one were to say one had met aliens. The idea is that we are all of us instant artists and writers and whatever other arty farty occupation we like and that doesn’t need a safety pass.
This of course has great appeal in a world where little is easy and, unlike allowing your butcher, who all of a sudden has decided that he is a neurosurgeon, to open up your head nobody actually dies.
Unless of course, as with the planet Bronitall in the book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe whose economy collapsed because everyone decided to open shoe shops, our whole system collapses because we will all end up trying to sell eachother crap paintings or self published books.
One can argue that our system has already collapsed so why shouldn’t everyone paint terrible pictures and write unreadable books?
Of course everyone can spend their time as they please but I do despair that the idea that you have to produce a lot of bad art to be a good artist (you do)has been so warped that people now think that all one has to do is produce bad art. That one doesn’t have to try.
It is common in these times to believe that everyone is creative and that being creative means painting or writing or taking photographs and everyone can-and in fact should be- doing this. It is not an idea I am totally onboard with.
I cannot decide if it’s the recession that has inflicted this rush of middle-aged people into one of the above professions as so many are now unemployed or if it was the preceding boom when so many were able to retire early and use their marketing skills to start successful(ie financially successful) second careers. Maybe it was a bit of both.
It wasn’t always so. Back before photography was invented a painter was a labourer like carpenter or a tiler but even worse off as they were dependent on a small pool of wealthy people for their livelihood.
With the invention of photography painters were no longer needed to record anything and so they cut loose and started to play and we got Impressionism and Cubism and Fauvism and Expressionism and so on.
For quite a while these painters, being on the unpopular cutting edge were grubbing around in poverty(as many still are)but the advent of the powerhouse that was Picasso, who was a well-off man on the back of his work by the age of 24, changed all that.
By the late 40s and early 50s when Jackson Pollock appeared in Life magazine the wars had dampened everyones enthusiasm for rules and Kerouac and Ginsberg were making freedom and Levis attractive suddenly being an artist seemed, to the uninitiated, not only easy but desirable. Then the bucks started rolling in and it all started looking, to use a new word, cool.
Flash forward to today and most peoples idea of living a creative life is that it is ‘cool’ and easy and restful. How often have I been told that I am lucky to get to hang around at home ‘dabbing’ away when other people were out doing ‘real’ work. There is no conception that it is actually very bloody hard. For the real ones that is. The artist still has rent to pay and food to buy.
But for todays nouveau artist creativity is centred around having coffee and expressing oneself through making non practical things that will hopefully fetch exorbitant prices. The wonderful thing of course as we mentioned, if we choose to do this we can. No one dies. One can just wake up in the morning and repeat in the mirror “I am an artist” “I am a writer” and it is so.
So what is my point?On the face of it and in fact in reality I am one of the offenders. I did go to art college but I failed at Graphic Design. I am self-taught as a painter, designer, illustrator and more recently I have begun to write without any training or history beyond a few decades of voracious reading. I cannot defend myself but damn that will not stop me from giving out.
For me I feel I paint and write from the heart and I set standards for myself. Art is always quite hard to judge but if you look at it long enough you learn to see what Robert Pirsig calls ‘quality’ that indefinable thing that every real artist aims for in the work. You may not like it but you can respect the effort. They may not often reach it but they always try.
And I suppose this is what pisses me off these days, that there are so many people NOT trying to reach that ‘thing’. They don’t even know the ‘thing’ is there. For most people in middle -age who after a so-called lifetime of living for everyone else i.e. living with their own choices and then wanting every other choice as well, the ‘thing’ they are reaching for is the public acceptance of their persona as an artist. A show. A catalogue. Drapey clothes.
Am I guilty of these things?Sure(except for the drapey clothes) but nothing of course is clear-cut. Of the ‘real’ artists many get caught up in the selling, in the public side of things. They are viewed as stupid or backward not to and in fact showing work is important as is selling, at least to make things viable-unless of course you have a pension plan from your previous career in which you learned how fabulous you are and how to sell and so ironically don’t need the pension. But those artists can still have at their core their need to reach the ‘thing’, the place.
Of the nouveau artists, some, in the doing may at some point begin to sense the ‘thing’ may even try to get there. Some. Maybe.
In the mean time though the world will be flooded with shite ‘art’ and people who don’t know any better will buy off the ones with the hardest necks and some of the real people will sink without a trace.
I am not particularly saying I am one of the ‘real’ ones but I think it is a terrible pity all the same how hard some very talented people have to struggle to survive.
The other thing that bugs is me is that a creative life is defined in such narrow terms. It is in fact a very easy furrow to fall into, but particularly for those who really have no idea what being creative actually is
The idea of being creative in all of life and in all jobs seems to have escaped many people probably because many jobs don’t appear to be ‘cool’ and at the end of the day it is the ‘cool’ that people are chasing no matter how often they call it ‘creativity’.
Creativity can be everywhere in everything. It is any job done well and with attention, be it solving a problem, baking a cake, ordering an office, sailing a boat or just going for a damn walk. Often it can be working with your hands but for some people it can working in the abstract, using the head, using logic.
Creativity is not that ‘cool’ at least not in the way some people think. Creativity is in fact quite nerdy, something which has taken me a life time to learn so maybe I should not be so hard on my fellow man. I have been guilty of much too.
Still, when I ponder on these things, quality in art and artists struggling to find a way to do what they have to do with the added burden of an increasing amount of dilettantes jamming up the system I often think of one painter I knew in Scotland.
On leaving Glasgow School of Art Matty was one of the hottest new names with his massive expressionist canvasses and his career looked rosy until one day when he was hanging a picture he started to wonder if what he was doing was what he really wanted to do. He realised it was not.
He began to paint small still lifes. He rhapsodized about Chardin and Bonnard and light and paint. He painted teaspoons. He turned his back on the glittering career
That was maybe 15 years ago or more. He still paints . His work has begun to creep towards this expressionist or abstract again but this time with a world of history behind it. He has a family, he teaches in Art college and last I knew of him he squeezed in his painting at the end of his long and tiring day because he just had to.
Matty and his ilk are the ones I get annoyed for when I see yet another smiling face in a newspaper beside some awful thing hanging on a wall and I am reminded yet again that there is a lot of room these days for the bad artists, the bad writers. Let us not forget to keep some space for the real ones too.