Jack Of All Trades Amongst The Chickens
More Thoughts About Pauline Boty and art
I did a drawing yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve made art in months. Life got in the way for a long while. Unlike writing, which doesn’t make much mess, arting requires more peripheral stuff. Depending on what I’m doing, I spend more time setting up and cleaning away than I do making. Yesterday, the gods were in my favour and I spent a pleasing afternoon drawing a chicken I bumped into on my morning walk.
As I was drawing, I was thinking about the Pauline Boty book again. I was thinking about the presumptions we make about art and artists, or indeed any kind of creative process. There are all kinds of implicit rules and beliefs, not just about the difference between good and bad art, or what art even is, but about how it should be made and who should make it.
I think it’s fair to say that I’m a Jack of all trades and a master of none. I write a bit, I draw a bit, I paint a bit. Sometimes I make mad objects - I won't call them sculptures because it’s too grand a term for what appears between my fevered brain and my fingers. I dabble in all kinds of things. Sometimes because I know I can make something, sometimes because I want to see if I can. Often I surprise myself. I definitely surprise other people.
I’m using the word ‘surprise’ in all its meanings here.
My love of making was curtailed by a sneering art teacher at school who despised everything I made because I couldn’t do it ‘right’. He was particularly incensed at the fact that I enjoyed collage, which he considered ‘cheating’. He was furious that I couldn’t get the hang of perspective and I was banned from having a go on the potter’s wheel because my coiled clay work didn’t show enough potential.
He didn’t break me entirely. I still made things after that but never with any sense of being good enough until I went to watercolour classes, thirty years later and met a different kind of teacher who was just wildly encouraging and delighted with what you could do, rather than furious at what you couldn’t.
It took me a long time to believe that that first teacher’s words were not the truth of art for me or indeed for anyone else. It wasn’t just my new teacher’s encouragement that helped shift things. My daughter, Tilly, is an artist and her approach to art is liberating and remarkable. Rather like that scene in When Harry Met Sally: ‘I’ll have what she’s having.’
The internet also helped me enormously. Growing up, when we only had libraries and teachers and the odd trip to museums to show us what art was, the view was rather narrow - even though we didn’t know it at the time. Looking at what other people make, discovering new artists and new ways of making has given me a far wider and more open sense of what it is possible and desirable to do.
Going back to the Boty book, I think I was mildly triggered by the direct and implied judgments around her art. That it wasn’t polished enough, that it wasn’t artistic enough, that she hadn’t worked hard enough. Even the way she painted. She would work on things in intense bursts and then leave them, maybe even not picking them up again, even though some critics considered them unfinished or rough. Nobody suggests that it might have been finished because she was happy with it and she had done whatever she needed to do with it.
There was concern about the fact that she did different things, sometimes all at once. Nobody could outright say she wasn’t an artist, because she clearly was, but there was a whiff of disapproval around the whole thing. That’s not to say that she didn’t have her champions and people who thought her work was great, but even in a book about her, there are still people included who thought she was a bit shit.
Nobody says this stuff about Picasso, who had a go at every artistic practice under the sun and changed his style as often as he changed his lovers. Nobody said; ‘ugh, his ceramics are a bit sketchy, why can’t he stay in his lane?’ Nobody said; ‘he’s a bit promiscuous. If he kept it in his pants more, he’d probably be better at colouring in the lines.’ Nobody said: ‘Cubism is just collage and brown paint. What a cop out.’
I’m reading a book about Giacometti at the moment. I’m a third of the way through and I’ve learned more about where he ate his dinner and the fights he had with Andre Breton than I have about his work. At least once every five pages I’m treated to a description of his mother fixation and impotence which he liked to exorcise by going through prostitutes like I work through a box of Jaffa Cakes. Apparently it’s alright that he treated women like shit because it is endearing that he was open about his sexual failings and rape fantasies. His work is never described as ropy, even though he wasn’t happy with it. It is enough that others could see his brilliance. His discontent was just the struggle of being a perfectionist. His failings as a person and an artist get upgraded to ‘quirks’ because he was a genius.
It’s not that these men aren’t brilliant artists. They are, but that doesn’t mean that all their work was always brilliant or that they never made bad art, or that they were great human beings. All too often, men are given a free pass through the use of the word ‘genius’. That free pass is rarely extended to women in the same sphere. Their failings as human beings are all to easily ported over into criticisms of their artistic works and vice versa.
I am not writing all this to make the sudden announcement that I have decided that I am a genius. I am a flawed human being who likes to make things and dabble on the margins of art. I’m not as bad as my first art teacher said but nobody is going to be writing a monograph about my works either. That’s fine with me. I’m just annoyed with myself that I often stop myself from making because of all the nonsense I’ve swallowed about not being good enough and that’s shit.
Not good enough for who? Not good enough for what? Even the phrase; ‘Jack of all trades and master of none,’ is bullshit. Why do I need to be a master of anything at all? It’s just another con by some bloke in charge to stop other people realising he’s not all that. I’ve known a fair few people in my life who have been masters of their trade and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and neither are they.
Real life is not about mastering your trade. That’s for the rarefied folks who have other people to do stuff for them and who have the time, the means and the income to specialise. The rest of us have to shift for ourselves. That’s when the Jack of all trades comes into their own.
You might be able to hack into the Pentagon without breaking a sweat, but can you cook three different meals for five people whilst washing Daniel’s PE kit, filling in the permission slip for Phoebe’s history trip and stopping Edward stabbing the gerbil with a compass? No? What about rustling up a model of the Colosseum out of cardboard boxes? Fantastic Mr. Fox outfit? Short documentary about the death of William the Conqueror? I’ve got you. Two hours to turn around a painting of the Great Fire of London. Could do it in my sleep. Have actually done it in my sleep.
It’s vital that we do things we are not very good at. It stops our brains atrophying. It stops us thinking we know everything and turning into judgmental pricks. It’s critical that we fail to do things and that we make a mess. It’s vital that we take a risk and find out we actually can do something new. Some of the greatest things come out of the messiest moments both in art and life. Children learn through play, because it allows them to create things that don’t mean it’s a real life disaster when they don’t go well. Art is one of the only things we have that allows that to continue into adult life. Art is not about being a genius or being perfect or staying in the lines. Art is about experiencing the glorious mess of creation and finding things within it that help us see and explore what we would otherwise dismiss.
So often when people talk about art I hear two beliefs being held in parallel. ‘It’s too hard. I can’t do it.’ and ‘That’s a fucking joke. Even I could do that.’ If art is too hard, but also too easy, that’s the perfect excuse to never have a go at anything. When people say those things I hear, ‘That scares me.’ I understand that. I am scared a lot. But what a shame to deny ourselves the chance to find joy in a zero risk situation. Unless you’ve got a lot of cream carpets.
Art is only too hard if you operate in the rarefied air of genius and mastery. Art is bigger and better and more generous than that. There is room for everyone as long as we stop gatekeeping our creative processes or allowing other people to do that for us. What has given me most freedom is learning to take my joy in the making, not in the end product.
I enjoyed drawing my chicken yesterday. I spent two hours thinking about the marks I was making on the paper and nothing more. At the end of it, I came out with a recognisable picture, which was a bonus. It’s not going to win any prizes, but it doesn’t need to. I don’t need a teacher to approve it, or someone to like it. I don’t need to be told that if I just did this or that to it, it could be better. I don’t need to be master of my chickens. I am happy with all my trades. What if us being happy with what we have made is enough, whatever we are doing?
What if Pauline Boty was happy with what she had made? What if that was enough for her? What if she didn’t need to be approved of? What if she approved of herself? What if people like her work just as it is and don’t need to be told by someone else where its weak points are or why someone else’s work is better? What if it’s ok for us to like it anyway? Imagine that.