The work you do as an artist is really play, but in the most serious sense […] Like when a two year old discovers how to make a tower out of blocks. It is no half-hearted thing. You are materialising – taking something from the inside and putting it out into the world so you can be relieved of it.
Quote by Leslie Dick, from Seven days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton
Haiku of grass and sky, 2014
As I try to move forward with my practice, I find myself reflecting more and more on what it is I am doing, and to what purpose. I read the book Seven days in the Art World last year (kindly sent to me as a gift by a fellow blogger). In an attempt to unravel the elusive workings of the art world, Thornton tries to engage various academics with the question: “What is an artist?”, to which she receives a range of answers, mostly disparaging and dismissive, as she records, presumably because many found the question naive, distasteful or even irrelevant. An obvious question it may be, but it is a pertinent one, and one to which it seems to me someone involved in any way in the discourse of art and art practice, whether as scholar, producer, seller or critic, should have an intelligent sounding answer.
The writer Leslie Dick, however, does have an answer, and one which is somehow obvious and clever and thoughtful and disarmingly simple all at the same time. I have a terrible memory for quotes (and most things), so when I do remember things other people have said, or written, it usually means that it was something which resonated deeply with me and was apposite to me or my situation. Indeed, I was, at the time, spending a lot of time pondering this creative impetus and the overwhelming necessity which I was feeling to express it.
I was asking myself a lot of questions, and the internal monologue went something like this: Is this normal, to feel the need for space to just ‘be creative’? If so, why don’t other people around me get that? Is it selfish to want time away from my friends and family to satisfy this craving? Why do I find it awkward to talk about? What is it I am trying to achieve, though? Is it art? Is it a hobby? Or is it something else entirely? How do I know? How do I find out? Does it really matter?
So you see, when I read these words, they just seemed to slot so perfectly into my thinking, like missing pieces of a jigsaw which had previously brought nothing but sheer confusion and frustration – it suddenly all transposed neatly together to make a perfectly whole picture of where I was at. Which made perfect sense. Because here is the ‘guilty’ stuff which was also going through my brain:
1 – I am being indulgent (there are so many other useful things I could be doing – like the ironing, or sorting the cupboards, or baking nice treats for the family, or volunteering my time for a charity… I could be so much more organised! And charitable!)
2 – I am wasting my time (just playing around – who cares about my pictures and my confused ramblings anyhow? Why bother?)
3 – I just need to do this.
And with that efficiently eloquent turn of phrase I was able to, if not exactly answer my questions, place them, settle them, and realise that the questioning in itself was a perfectly normal, even essential part of the process. Because it does feel like being a toddler at play, in the sense that you are gifting yourself the luxury of time (and we all know how precious that is) and sometimes money also, to play. It does feel indulgent. But no-one would ever dream of accusing a toddler of wasting her time building a tower of blocks, because we also all know that play is an essential part of a toddler’s development. What is one day a tower may the next day become a bridge, then a castle, and then, when the necessary motor skills are in place, only the child’s imagination and opportunity to practice is its limit. And her mother’s (or father’s) little squeals of joy and rain showers of kisses are all the feedback and encouragement that child needs to know that she is on the right track and should continue in her modest endeavours, which will eventually become greater ones.
It’s a bit more complicated as an adult. We tend to seek recognition from a wider audience for one thing, and that toddler’s world is yet reassuringly simple and primitive, in the sense that the meeting of basic human needs and impulses are of primary concern over social ones. We cannot always seek to satisfy our desires so freely. But why do we as a society tend to advocate that play should be ring-fenced for childhood? Adults need play too, and they need it in the most serious and fundamental sense. Just like the toddler, they need time and space to explore and experiment; to practice and develop ideas and processes; to put them ‘out there’ so that they may then have the opportunity to evolve into achievements for which they can be recognised and of which they can be proud, however small or big they may be. Inside every adult is a little toddler desperate for a high five or thumbs up for good effort, or even a small squeal of joy.
Soon after I wrote the first draft of this post, I went away to a music festival with (husband) Alex for the weekend. We try to get away and do this every year, just the two of us and our tent, to indulge our shared love of music and escape (just for a while) from the trappings of a terribly bourgeois existence. There was a young unsigned American band who were all over the festival and generally working really hard, but having a great time. We saw them play a couple of times, and on one occasion the lead singer introduced a song called “Innocent” saying that as people get older they often feel the need to get all serious and tortured about creativity, but that really, well, it should just be about having a whole lot of fun. Yup. And that “fuck it, let’s just have fun” vibe of a festival is just generally the best kind of atmosphere to spawn creativity. Even tonight, I start to reprimand my children for blowing bubbles in their milk and making a mess all over the tablecloth, but whilst launching into the familiar rhythm of weary chastisement, I suddenly stop and check myself. Because I realised they knew. They were already getting the cloth to clear up the mess they had made (even if they made a terrible job of it). Play is good. Play is experimenting. Play is learning. But like anything good, it must have its limits, and as adults and educators, that is our job, in our wisdom and experience, to gently and sensitively educate our children in the seriousness of play, and thus instil a sense of individual responsibility for any mess they may make in the process. And maybe next time they will know exactly how hard they need to blow to get maximum bubble fun without spilling the milk over the edge of the cup (here’s hoping at least).
Answers to my questions? I haven’t really found them. What I have found, I think, is some reassurance that what I experience when I need to ‘create’ is derived from a most basic and natural human instinct. Whilst other people may feel the need to pigeon-hole my outward self as one thing or another and may find this confusing, really it is OK for me to be ‘just me’ on the inside and to continue to play with serious focus, energy and passion and a self-reflexive approach in order to push my practice forwards. All the rest is just a fine balancing act (and that, of course, is a little more complicated).
This image is part of a new investigation into photography and poetic expression, in which I am exploring the relationship between photograph as both surface-object and subject-referent. I don’t really know if it’s art, or if it’s any good, but I’m definitely having lots of fun playing.
© images and content Emily Hughes, 2014