Friday, 25 July 2014

the arrogance of dissatisfaction

Over the last few months I've come to realise that my visual perception, the foundation of most of my practice, is profoundly unreliable. That the sense that  I use the most to communicate and explore, is, sadly, irrevocably connected to my complicated emotional history, and that this history endlessly winds its tentacles around every impulse, every input.

For a long time I couldn't see this. I just felt dissatisfied with the thing that I had made. I'm using judgements every inch of the way, and when I feel that something is wrong or unsuccessful the temptation is to just go with it, to assume that the judgement is just more of the feedback loop of my working - the same kind of feedback that makes me dip my brush in the purple after the white, or swoop the pastel around to the left in a big arc. But now I see that it is not.

The unconscious decision-making used throughout working is different from the judgement at the end about the value of what I've been working on. And, as most visual artists know, that final judgement is often a trickster. You loathe your piece, you want to scrub it out, or you just feel sad and disappointed. Then two months later you find it again and you see all sorts of potential in it that was obscured at the time. Obscured, I'm thinking today, by the winding tentacles of wounded child, pouting ego, or perhaps one of Maisel's many anxieties.

This morning, slightly tangentially, it occurred to me that being dissatisfied with a piece of work that I have produced - either immediately afterwards, or some time later - is profoundly arrogant. When I decide that I'm not satisfied, or that my idea has failed, I'm acting as if the thing on the paper is mine. That I made it in a willful, controlled kind of way; that I decided exactly how the marks would go down, and therefore that I am responsible for the end result.

And yet many artists will tell you that when their work is going well, they don't feel that they're the driver of what's happening at all. They feel more as if the work is in some sense 'coming through' them, often with the greatest of ease. From this perspective, perhaps what we're doing a lot of the time is actually creating conditions; keeping the soil fertilised and watered, so that if and when some small seed floats down from the sky, it will land on a spot conducive to its flourishing. This is how it feels to me. When things start to connect and move, it isn't because I  have done something, or that I willed it. At that moment I'm not really doing any of it.

Perhaps my job is just to keep on making lines, to keep looking at shapes, to keep trying out colours. At times what results will please me, and at other times it will stab me, bruise my ego and deflate all of my over-inflated dreams. Both of these reactions are a distraction. Both are premised on the assumption that I was responsible for how it turned out, that the work is 'mine'.

When I stop to think about this, it is perfectly clear to me that what comes is not coming from me at all. I'm just a life-form, a collection of cells moving about in a certain way, like a slime mould or a bee swarm. Life is using me, moving through my cells, folding and curling like cigarette smoke against a sunlit window. My consciousness confounds me, obscures what could be a wider, more gentle awareness that, in principle, could just allow it all to move and pass through. And as life moves through me, using my consciousness to fold back in on itself, like a great eye swiveling around to inspect a spot behind its knee, how can I be so rude as to criticise the path that it takes?


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