The Responsibility To Take Your Self Seriously

Last week I was writing about archiving, and I think I have a little more to share on this matter.

I continued archiving and rationalising my little studio/study/archive/library room this week. As I might have already mentioned, I, like many of us in the arts, find it difficult to know what to discard. We’ve been trained to see value in everything, as well as potential and possibility. At the same time, we live in a harsh and greedy economic environment, in which a home and space of any kind comes at a high price and requires all our skill and effort to maintain. A crowded or messy space can make us feel anxious but making space and organising things gives us at least a temporary feeling of greater control.

One of the nuances of this archiving activity arises around the concept of ‘responsibility’, and another issue that arises is just how seriously we take ourselves as an artist. Today I want to write briefly about these two things.

When I completed my PhD, which took seven, funded years of writing and research, I experienced that strange feeling we sometimes have with qualifications, i.e. the need to justify, represent and explain to ourselves what it was all about, what it was for, and what it might have changed. It’s true that my PhD didn’t give me a wage increase or greater status (none that was obvious at least). Few of my colleagues or friends even seemed to notice this landmark in my life and work. But I DO believe in qualifications and believe that they have both a functional and symbolic value that equates them with what a pre-modern society might call a ‘rite of passage’.

As I say it was hard to find an explanation of what had happened to me when I finally received my PhD and proudly slotted my hard-bound thesis into a gap in my archive. So, I thought about it, and one of the answers I came up with was this: I had just passed my LAST exam. I could not pass any more exams in that subject, and this was indeed symbolic. If you cannot pass any more exams in this subject then that must mean that YOU are now qualified and therefore RESPONSIBLE for the subject, for what you have to contribute to the subject, in a way that did not exist until you passed this very last exam.

I can’t explain this clearly enough, but it is VERY important I think. It is one thing to pursue a kind of practice or profession while you can always defer to a higher authority for anything you do not do or do not know, but it is something else to take full responsibility for all of the content, form and method in your practice or profession. And taking that full responsibility means that now it is YOU that must speak, you that must take responsibility for all you do and say on the subject, and you who must have something to offer.

Now, something similar happens in the archiving conundrum. At an earlier turning point in my life I once discarded, overnight, and in a rather emotional fashion, just about everything I owned and everything I had written and made. I created a tabula rasa that allowed me to start my work again at a new level. But I never saw that moment as a taking of responsibility.

Today however, when I decide NOT to discard things, but to do what is perhaps more difficult, to care for, label and organise them (even though I still doubt that anyone coming after me would continue to care for them  – see last week’s Post), I now feel that I am taking that full responsibility for what I have done, what I have become, what I do and what I still aim to do. This IS my practice. This IS my life. This is what I value and what I believe should be cared for – no matter what anyone else thinks of it.

And once again, this move towards a more complete responsibility for all that I do is, to me, the most meaningful and crucial way or path on the journey to being who and what we are –  by means of art.

Now, before I finish, I just want to say something about that other point – taking ourselves seriously – which is connected to the above. Of course, when we decide that something we wrote or made, or perhaps didn’t finish writing or making, is valuable, and give it a place in our archive, we take both it and ourselves seriously. You may have already noted a slight sense of stigma about this idea ‘taking yourself seriously’. But then, how on earth do we ever pursue our dreams or become who we believe ourselves to be if we do not ‘take ourselves seriously’?

Now, some people may find it easier, it may come more naturally to them to take themselves seriously. It may even be part of their childhood environment and schooling etc. Perhaps having a nice new winter coat to wear on a cold journey to school, and different shoes for different occasions, all implicitly allow and encourage a child to take itself more seriously than a child who doesn’t have these privileges. It’s true too that we might occasionally take ourselves too seriously and need some reining it (jokes are good for this) to inject some humility into our identity. But I do think that, whatever background we are from, and no-matter what stage of our career we are at, taking our self seriously is intrinsic to fulfilling ourselves and carrying out the creative tasks that have been, slightly mysteriously, set before us.

In a recently published piece I referenced ‘imposter syndrome’, an affliction which even afflicts luminary achievers such as Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama. Growing up as a woman and growing up in America as a black woman led both of them to doubt the reality of their achievements even when towers of objective proof of their magnificent achievements are staring them, and all who know them in the face. Consider and compare the innate, thoughtless, unreflective, massively over-inflated self-importance of the white, male, born-wealthy Donald Trump, who seems to treat his power as a divine right.

All of our hard-won personal achievements form us and elevate us. And we should value and acknowledge them, even if only relatively privately. We should take ourselves seriously, balanced by a need for humility. And all of this involves the taking of a special responsibility for the strange, questionable, formless thing that we and our career and our journey all are. No-one else is going to take it seriously for us, or take responsibility for it for us.

The English have a saying, “in for a penny, in for a pound”, and yes, we are IN, and once we really concede that we are IN then we have to take responsibility for the whole thing, and that is when we ‘graduate’.







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