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Among the 15 or so personal questions I throw at artists for the weekly G2 interview Portrait of the Artist, there is one that tends to make people think more than any other – do you suffer for your art?
“Yes,” said both Jane Birkin and Michael Ball without missing a beat – they get crippling stage fright. Painter Lucy Jones, who has cerebral palsy, admitted that she is often in a great deal of pain after kneeling for hours before a canvas. But Herbie Hancock didn’t like the question. “No,” he said. “I just don’t look at art and life that way.”
I was very interested, therefore, to hear what the panel at yesterday’s debate at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, called “Should artists suffer for their art?”, would make of the issue. As the art historian and curator Tim Marlow was quick to point out – addressing the packed room alongside collector David Roberts, sculptor and curator Soraya Rodriguez and performance artist Mark McGowan – the image of the penniless artist quietly expiring in a Parisian garret assumed its emotive power during the Romantic period.
So do we, as today’s consumers of art, still expect its creators to suffer? Do we still picture them in a modern-day equivalent of the draughty attic?
The panel agreed on the fact that the vast majority of artists – with big earners like Hirst and Jeff Koons as notable exceptions – find it very difficult to make a living from their work. This fact can be both liberating, allowing them to further push the boundaries without worrying about whether or not the piece will sell, and galvanising, preventing them from settling into complacency and becoming stale. Mark McGowan’s own provocative (and innately difficult to sell) works have included pushing a peanut around London with his nose, and crawling the streets of New York wearing a George Bush mask and an invitation to “kick my ass” (many people took him up on it). He said that artists should strive to preserve art’s “economy of the spirit”, rather than thinking about how to earn a living from it. Soraya Rodriguez agreed – although she said she’d rather refer to the artist’s necessary poverty as a “struggle”. “If life is easy for an artist,” she said, “will their art be any good?”
By the same token, an artist’s more profound suffering – whether emotional or psychological – can often seem to enhance their work. Some works (the paintings of Van Gogh or Goya, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse, to name a few) are inseparable from their creators’ personal pain. We are – as Marlow said last night, quoting Damien Hirst – a “trauma culture”, expecting to watch an artist’s suffering play out on canvas or stage or screen – and relating to them through it.
They may not all call it suffering, but every artist I’ve spoken to for Portrait – even those whose art has brought them fame and fortune – has described the real sacrifices, whether personal or economic, that they have made to dedicate themselves to their work. Yet very few of them have said they regret them.
As the ICA panel concluded, for the best artists, the drive to create is so strong that it can withstand almost any amount of suffering – and the life experience it gives them serves only to make their works more powerful.
Alan Greenspan recently proposed a constitutional amendment: “Anyone willing to do what is required to become president of the United States is thereby barred from taking that office.” In a similar spirit — with tongue partway in cheek — I’d like to put forward Teachout’s First Law of Artistic Dynamics: “The best way to make a bad work of art is to try to make a great one…”
Voltaire said it: The best is the enemy of the good. Ralph Ellison, like Bernstein and Welles, learned that lesson all too well. In 1952 he published “Invisible Man” and was acclaimed as a major novelist. The well-deserved praise that was heaped on him gave Ellison a fatal case of importantitis, and though he spent the rest of his life trying to finish a second novel, he piled up thousands of manuscript pages without ever bringing it to fruition. Why did he dry up? Because, as Arnold Rampersad’s 2007 biography of Ellison made agonizingly clear, he was trying to write a great book. That was his mistake. Strangled by self-consciousness, he never even managed to finish a good one.
Contrast Ellison’s creative paralysis with the lifelong fecundity of the great choreographer George Balanchine, who went about his business efficiently and unpretentiously, turning out a ballet or two every season. Most were brilliant, a few were duds, but no matter what the one he’d just finished was like, and no matter what the critics thought of it, he moved on to the next one with the utmost dispatch, never looking back. “In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse,” he said. “Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time.” That was the way Balanchine saw himself: as an artistic craftsman whose job was to make ballets. Yet the 20th century never saw a more important artist, or one less prone to importantitis.
Yes, it’s important to shoot high, but there’s a big difference between striving to do your best day after day and deliberately setting out to make a masterpiece. What if Welles had gone back to Broadway after “Citizen Kane” and directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on a bare stage, with no expensive bells and whistles? Or if Bernstein had followed “West Side Story” with a fizzy musical comedy that sought only to please? Or if Ellison had gritted his teeth, published his second novel, taken his critical lumps, ignored the reviews, and gone back to work the very next day? Then all of those gifted, frustrated men might have spared themselves great grief — and perhaps even gone on to make more great art.
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