The ink is certainly still wet on this one… I’m hoping that a night’s sleep will help me work it out.
After six years of studying visual art – painting and drawing, art and design, and fine art – I put down my paintbrush and picked up my pen. I always preface conversations about writing with this in mind, making a negative assertion that ‘I’m not a real writer’ or that ‘I can’t really talk about the writing because I don’t know what it is’.
Of course, the same could be said of the work that I used to make, and what I noticed was that the further down the line of artistic enquiry I walked, the less able I was to talk about what I was doing, the less sense it made, the less I seemed to know. Art (the word still manages to stick in my throat) lost its attraction, and the passion with which I had begun my studies was the victim of a slow and painful death.
I used to think visual art was the greatest, most liberating form of expression, revelling in the immense possibilities of a discipline barely defined, in which it was not only customary but also regularly necessary to break rules, and make definitions of your own. Within such scope, with so little at stake, it’s very easy for endless possibilities to turn into pointless activity. If art can be anything, then where do you start? The blank canvas, which is firmly positioned as more of a metaphor than an object, becomes a very fearful place.
The blank canvas and the blank page offer the same problematic. For me, it’s not just about the great weight of creation, it’s also about a state of mind. I am obsessively attracted to the perfection of a blank page, which is pregnant with possibility. I also have to confess to a lack of imagination that has persisted since childhood: where some children had imaginary friends, and played make believe, I simply devoured shelves of fiction, jumping enthusiastically into varied worlds created by many different people.
Put simply, I oscillate between an obsession with the blank page, that simultaneously contains everything and nothing, and the loaded medium – the product of someone else’s creativity. Late on in my art education, I started making work specifically in response to other work that I had discovered. I wrote essays about my fellow students’ work. I reviewed degree shows around the country. Without realising it, I had started perpetuating an insularity that I now find detestable in the nebulous world of art.
It seems to me now that I spent a lot of time as a student concentrating on myths: the myth of the artist as a lone and misunderstood genius, the myth of muse-delivered inspiration, notions of ‘profundity’, ‘truth’ and a ‘calling’. I sought to dispel these myths in my own practice by making an explicit space for the audience in my work by championing and pursuing the notion that everyone can make art. What I realised was that art-making seemed out of reach for lots of people, both because of a perceived lack of skill, and because they lacked confidence in their ability to talk about art.
I speak to an astonishing number of people, including highly intelligent, literate and interesting people, who are embarrassed or ashamed by their self-proclaimed lack of ‘understanding’ when it comes to art. I could argue that this may be caused by the saturation of, and reliance upon, words in framing the presentation of art. I could also argue that this may be caused by the notion of authority and the proliferation of ‘knowledge’ based commentary about the visual arts. But what really interests me is that audiences primarily engage with art on a sensory level: that the vitality of a space where interpretation is open, without prejudice and ripe with multiplicity depends on immediate and uninhibited responses to sensory stimulation.
The knowledge based commentary that proliferates our newspaper columns and cultural magazines certainly has its uses, but I’d suggest that it is as alienating for some people as it is informative for others. If the authoritative voice stymies people’s ability to form their own opinions, then it necessarily ought to be tempered with a voice that embraces a multifarious response. To sum up, lyrics from the estimable Rage Against The Machine: ‘we gotta take the power back’.