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Musings on an artist’s life


If when people ask what you do and you say artist or writer, they think “something’s wrong, I never heard of him”.

My friend Alan is an artist. He makes paintings because he loves making them. Sometimes someone buys one. Other times, someone pays him to make paintings to order.

That’s like writers. We like plucking a thought from the swirling fog of particles in our heads and making it discussable. Or trying to. If it brings in some bacon, we rejoice.

Like artists, writers are expected to be famous. If when people ask what you do and you say artist or writer, they think “something’s wrong, I never heard of him”.

That’s not a problem that plumbers cause, or professors of dentistry.

It’s ironic, too, because in fact nearly all artists and writers are no more famous than their brother who does liquor sales, and their car is 12 years older.

Writers tend to feel artists get an easy ride. Art comes naturally to them, no? At school they were the kid who drew faces we recognised. They just kept that up.

And their critical support is so enviable.

Their spouse’s two-second glance delivers “that left eye looks scrunched and furtive”. Next circuit might be “too bright now, turn it down”. While our spouses must handle requests to re-re-read Chapter 16 and see if it’s flowing yet.

This week, I heard Alan hot on the integrity of art, putting a hole in any idea that the pen has a nobler mission than the brush.

I’d never imagined that a painting can be a lie. Now I must cope with the thought that unless you put a part of yourself into doing it, it’s hollow and fails to grip, cheating even the client who commissioned it.

And: If you aren’t a little terrified of what you’re doing, you’re being lulled into mediocrity. If you know where you’re going before you get there, complacency is creeping up.

Rather look for the upside markers, like when you can’t believe that your brain is telling your fingers to do what your fingers are doing.

Or like seeing what you’ve done, hearing it speak to you, exulting in it, and not knowing how you did it or whether you can ever do it again.

A thing I’d never contemplated is the terror of starting a painting, and the factors that go into that.

One of these is startlingly simple: R150 worth of paper is on your easel. If your opening salvo gives you a wrong stroke at a wrong spot, your work is doomed. Morale, ego, and confidence trickle off, and lots of R150s crumple up in a corner.

We’ve all heard the standard bourgeois view of modern art – “my two-year-old could do that”. I’ll hear it with harder ears after Alan’s account of a certain young artist, cruelly disabled, getting in touch with herself and expressing an attitude to the world through her brush. That’s what it’s about, says A. It’s a different scale to price and sale.

Recalling times I’ve heard artists condemning artists (not a difficult thing to hear), I’m inspired by Alan’s case that the thing to condemn is a failure to aim for fulfilment.

I rethink times that I, thoroughly non-artist, have been quick with dismissal. A bit of a brake comes up there now.

That some art means nothing beyond hand-over-the-money-please, I’ll never begin to doubt, but that there can be realms of meaning in whether the dark grey blob is this side and the light grey blob is that side, or vice versa, is a thing I behold with appreciatively reopened eyes.

And apply the pen in prosaic endeavour to pass that on.

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