Wednesday, 24 November 2010


I remember when I started my thinkpic site, a friend suggested that there might be something going on there in terms of what he called 'legitimacy'. As in, not feeling that it was legitimate to simply do painting without any particular focus in terms of reward or ambition. I thought about this, but rejected it at the time, because at that point I was loving the simplicity and unpretentiousness of just playing with colour and form, and also the focus provided by the challenge of trying to make an image that articulated someone else's words or idea. Thinkpic work seemed to cut through all the problems of 'the art world'; the questions I had found so intractable (like, what's art? what's not art? why is that art and not this?), and the impossibility of finding a reason for such an apparently useless pursuit.

But as time has gone on, I've found myself needing a break from that kind of exploration. It is, after all, still a form of work. I'll come back to it.  But however interesting such challenges may be, and however preferable to endless preparation and marking, they're still aligned to other people's agendas. As I've calmed down from needing to see evidence that a new life was possible if I gave up my academic career, I've begun to see that you can't just replace an old set of demands with a new set, however much better that new one might align with long-suppressed feelings and desires.

Two people have said to me recently that if things seem to be all over the place, sometimes you just have to stop and start again. I've never given myself permission to do that. When one type of work came to its natural conclusion, I never said, hang on, what do you really want to do here? Instead I looked back over what I'd done, and tried to work out how I could create something new from the starting point of those skills and experiences. And fast, in a kind of panic, as if I had to earn a full salary every month (or at least be enrolled on a new degree), without taking a breath. No wonder that after some 30 odd years of this breathless instrumentalism I was eventually forced, by my neglected and abused soul, in the guise of my physical body, to stop and start again....

It's hard to stop, once you've got a momentum. But stop I have. And today I had a conversation with a musician about how work tries to fit in with being an artist or being a musician, and I suddenly saw it all a bit differently. It doesn't matter what progress you make, how hard it is, what the hell you think you're doing in your art or your music, what matters is that you have to live it. We both started off doing that, so what changes? He pointed out that the life of an artist or a musician is chaotic, and unstable. After a while of that, you can feel drawn towards something more stable, something with an income, something that isn't quite so hard. And then, once you've had a taste of a stable life, as he put it, you become seduced by it. Then he said something that really struck a chord - 'you enter into that stable life with a feeling of resentment, that you then suppress and re-channel into your work'. Ha! Why do I recognise this so immediately??

His solution was to find a job that didn't engage that creative energy and commitment (burning as resentment, re-ignited as passion and involvement in that work) but to keep the two clearly separate. To find something relatively interesting and rewarding, but something that you left at the door at five o'clock. And, crucially, given that you have to find something that at least seems worthwhile, not to get too involved in micro-managing your work environment, trying to improve things, generally being gung-ho. The micro-managment and improving you save for 'your artform'.

Of course I've heard versions of this before. But there were some subtle details in here that made it a much more nuanced plan than the usual advice about work that funds your creativity. This view takes account of all sorts of internal energies and tendencies, and suggests how they might be better separated and directed.

What has this got to do with legitimacy? I suppose that the discussion affirmed my 'right' to need to make my images; it acknowledged that it may be the case that some people actually have to do their art, or their music, in order to live their life in a state of balance and health. Even though I've been send this message so clearly by my physical body, I still somehow struggle to make mental and physical space for the legitimacy of my activity. It's bloody weird.

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