The Mythological Artist

I was thinking about that scene in Spaced, when Daisy and Tim move into the flat and they ask Brian;

“What kind of art do you do?”

He replies “Anger…. pain….fear….aggression…..”

An exaggeration perhaps, but one that taps into the general perception of artists. As strange creatures, who crawl into their studio dungeons, do odd activities for hours and hours, and emerge with a multi million pound masterpiece.

In many cases, Damien Hirst’s self image being one in point, I would refer to it as fetishisation.

I’ll admit that I’ve been there. When I first went to art school I subscribed to such a mentality. I remember that the first exhibition that I saw at the Fruitmarket Gallery (the first ‘contemporary’ gallery I had ever really visited), was Jac Leirner’s ‘Add it Up’.

I found it frustrating because I didn’t understand the production. To me, an artist was somebody who spent all day in the studio; making, making, making. Artwork to me, then, had to demonstrate or reveal it’s effort. I had to see that I certain amount of labour had gone into it, that the artist had slaved away. I wanted to see layers and evidence. I wanted to see that the artist had painted it, rubbed it back, painted it again.

Maybe it was down to the nature of my education at that point. Painting was a practice imposed on us as necessarily laborious. We would be given a week to complete a painting. It couldn’t take more or less. So, with that embedded in my mind, looking at Jac Leirner’s painting, they looked to me like they could be done in half an hour. If I had gone to my tutors with a painting I had done in, what I thought, only took half a day, I assumed they would have laughed me out of the room.

Looking back, I didn’t give them enough credit. I think if I presented something that looked like that, they would have taken it. But my expectations at the time were different. Art was supposed to be hard, it was supposed to be difficult, it was supposed to take a long time.

I didn’t understand the Jac Leirner exhibition because if you could go just just pin up 120 cords that you had found on a gallery wall and call it art, what exactly did you do in your studio? To be, being an artist was rooted in that studio labour of making. Of making stuff, all the time, as much as you could.

At the beginning of my education, I was in the studio every day until 8:30am until 6pm, because those were the hours that it opened. Sometimes, I beat the receptionist who opened up, and had to stand outside and wait. I’m not saying this with any great kind of pride. But at the time, I thought that made me a good artist – that I spent the most time in the studio.

And everything I did in the studio, in my mind, had to be inherently creative. Anything I could do back in my flat, I refused to do in the studio. That included writing, work in my sketchbook, writing up notes, documentation. Every day I would lug the huge A3 sketchbook home, and haul it all the way back down Leith Walk again the next day.

Because studio time was precious making time. I had to make as much as possible in those hours. I used to plan my time meticulously to make the most of them. When the school shut because of a snowstorm and my schedule for my final project was disrupted I panicked. When a friend asked me to accompany her to an interview because she had broken her arm, as much as I wanted to be a good friend, I couldn’t comprehend losing a single day in the studio.

I had this mythological idea of the artist who needed to be in the studio and who, as a good artist, needed to be constantly creative. I couldn’t drop the ball for a minute. I barely stopped making art for a second and ended up at the doctors from the resulting anxiety.

It also made me dependant. Studio practice didn’t belong to me, it belonged to that particular space. When the year ended and I had to go home for the summer, I became incredibly depressed. I couldn’t make any work. I didn’t understand how to make work now that I was separated from that space.

Being an artist does not mean, necessarily, the burying of the artist in a studio and being creative all day. For one thing, there are so many facets to what an artist has to be. There’s applications to open calls, funding, exhibitions. If you’re at art school, there’s the documentation of your work, the writing of notes, attending crits and tutorials, writing about your own work, researching work, going to galleries, reading texts. Just sitting and thinking. Sitting and looking.

These take up most of the time, and they are a necessary part of the creative practice. In fact, I would go so far as to call them the integral part.

These parts are the maintenance.

As Mierle Laderman Ukeles said, ‘maintenance takes all the fucking time’. And it does. But it’s necessary.

Jac Leirner’s work is beautiful. No, she probably didn’t spend that long on the making of the work. But she probably spent a hell of a long time on the maintenance. I doubt she did nothing in the studio all day. And all of that extra work was necessary to what she did.

I wish art school’s taught that. That the maintenance is not extra, not an add on, not something you have to do at home once the studio day is done. It is part of an art practice.

According to Marx, the “means of production belonged to the private realm” In order for the emancipation of the workers, they needed access to the means of production in order to gain control.

We can think of studio practice as a sort of means of production. In holding it as a mythology, the elite take control. The means of production, or the studio practice, is not privy to the populist masses. They do not understand it, and therefore have no control over it, and it is out of their grasp.

It seems to me that in revealing the means of production or the studio practice, that is how we might make art democratic. To allow people to see that it is not some pure creativity, inaccessible to the masses but instead actually just maintenance. Maintenance becomes accessible. Community art propels what Marx criticised. Marx wrote that power and domination lay within the withholding of means of production, we can still see this in community projects – the artist is still a mythological hero and it is not clear what they do. Requires an example.

Think about other professions – scientists do not ‘do science’ all day long. They spend a small amount of the time doing the experiment, but nothing would become of it if they didn’t write up the results, analyse them, compare the data. A scientist is also not mythological. We understand what they do. It’s still impressive, and still might not be for everyone, but we at least understand it.

Lastly, I want to talk about studio conditions that are necessary for the artist. The studio conditions are a large part of what constitutes an artist. Virginia Woolfe wrote about them in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. That we require a room. That is true. Maintenance of a studio is important. The space is important. But to be an artist that room needs to be flexible. That studio practice must be embedded within the artist. It is their studio practice, something they carry within them. The space is only a means to an end.

Studio’s as spaces are interesting at the moment. When the virus meant we couldn’t go into our studios, the tutors claimed that the studio was a practice, not a space. In a way that’s true. And yet it’s not. We need a space.

Thinking about the figure of the artist as mythological. I have never really been so horrified when I first came to Glasgow and attended a lecture by Ross Sinclair where he insisted that we all stood up and followed him in chants along the lines of ‘I brush my teeth; I am an artist. I make breakfast; I am an artist.”

The pandemic has shown that this is not really the case. The beauty of the studio is the ability to switch off and on. Studio practice, or the being an artist is a mindset, yes. But the studio acts as a dividing line – a space to put your thinking brain on and be an artist. No, the artist doesn’t become a creative genius in the studio, a la Brian from spaced. But they do have to have that distinction. Or I can’t think clearly and my head turns to mush.

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