N.B. I apologise to readers that this WordPress Blog facility, normally so simple to use, has ‘improved’ and updated’ itself in ways that I find baffling, and so I can no-longer simply write and edit in the way I usually do – hence the form of the one long paragraph below – not my choice but something to do with aforementioned ‘improvements’ that I am unable to fathom or follow !!??
Recently, I’ve been feeling a bit ‘high and dry’. The summer gives me a
chance to attend to my archive. And what I find there I am immensely proud of – all the published and unpublished written works, all the records of the courses I have invented and delivered to students, and the portfolios of images, projects, events and shows, just a few which have been exhibited, most not.
But this pride is quickly followed by a sense of fear and dismay about where this has all led me, and what the future might hold. I feel like I may have climbed and climbed a most difficult tree, and one that took decades of focused attention to climb, only to find myself reaching thinner and thinner branches now and with no likelihood of arriving at a destination – which might be, or might have been, some sense of security and substantial recognition and reward.
A few years ago, when I was visiting a sea-side town, I made my way to its sprawling emporium of antiques and knick-knacks. After gazing for over an hour into numerous cabinets and at the bountiful supply of strangely juxtaposed objects that had mysteriously found their way there from distant times and places, I chose to buy just two, tiny, cheap, but strangely charming objects, one of which was a crudely carved and painted figure, no more than two centimetres high, of a boxer, one arm outstretched in a punch, and who seems to have a bruise on one cheek.
Yesterday, while relaxing in the park, I was watching a young boxer go through his exercises in the shadow of a tree. Much of this involved carefully controlled jabbing and dancing as if fighting (quite successfully) against an invisible opponent. I wrote the following down in my notebook:
“Art is some kind of victory. It can be a struggle and something also at which we fail. Your ‘opponents’, however, as in life, may be real or imagined, visible or invisible, within you or without, human or inhuman.” Then: “Artists are undeniably competitive, and jealous“.
I always enjoyed the mind and thoughts of Andy Warhol, whom I see as one of late 20th century American culture’s primary shamans. I loved his camp candour, as when he once admitted: “I’m sooo jealous. Even if I’m dancing and my right foot starts doing a good move my left foot gets jealous” (or words to that effect). It’s great to have this, otherwise commonly repressed sentiment articulated for us all by someone who can carry it off with a flourish like that.
Yes, there are times when, as artists we really believe we are flying high, that we might have even ‘arrived’, that we have broken through the glass and class ceilings that frustrate and oppress us, and are soon to be recognised for our true value and for the lifetime of dedication and struggle we have applied to our work and to the aspiration ‘artist’.
But there are just as many times when the bubble has burst, and we bemoan and find hard to believe how slim are the pickings we receive and are likely to receive in return for decades of effort, climbing and slipping down some image of a ‘greasy pole’ that we sometimes call a career.
This year, I suppose I have had a share of both of these, but as I say at the outset, in the thoughts taken from my notebook after watching the boxer in the park, all and none of this is true. At times – perhaps just when we need them – we feel we have competitors, and / or experience jealousy – either our own or the jealousy of others.
At other times, none of this is the case and none of this true. Our obstacles and opponents have become invisible, imaginary figures, like those conjured up by the boxer who can train alone while earnestly fighting with a figure that no-one else but he can see.
And perhaps these are the best times, when we are quietly confident of our progress and satisfied with whatever acknowledgement we have received, but not puffed-up and neither dejected deflated by a sense of injustice as the world seems oblivious to the imbalance between what we have put into art, and into our art and what we have been able to extract, in return, by way of rewards.
The artist’s life is, it seems, necessarily perilous. It may seem Romantic and old-fashioned to many savvy artists today, but I am unable to shake the feeling that, to pursue a life in art is somehow necessarily to eschew common-sense, sensible planning, astute economics and to rather follow, as much as possible, nothing but our art and what it seems to demand or require of us at each stage of our lives.
Then again, there are surely degrees of perilousness variously relative to people with different economic and social statuses. It seems to me that, while our university arts courses nobly practice ‘widening participation’ (and in some ways have for at least a generation or more now) art will nevertheless tend to be a ‘rich man’s game’ or a middle-class career, in that it is far less dangerous to keep ‘taking risks’ and shimmying ‘out on a limb’ if you and your family have, for generations, been propertied, inheriting, well-educated and therefore well-connected professionals.
But there I go again, shadow-boxing perhaps, creating opponents and obstacles that may or may not exist. Still, it’s wise to stay in-shape, because, I suspect, my life and work will always be a ‘fight’ or ‘battle’ in some respect, and the best I can do is stay nimble and ready to defend myself, if not ever clearly or actually hopeful of ‘winning’.