I’ve been wondering for a while what it is exactly that I make – ‘I’ here being that particular persona within the constellation that is called ‘myself’, the one who works as ‘an artist’? We are all, I belief, creative with regard to our own lives. (Which is what I think Joseph Beuys meant when he said: “Everyone is an artist”). But creating one’s life isn’t quite the same as ‘making art’. For example, part of my life has been about creating and bringing up children. There’s obviously no art to making children, although like art chance and imagination can play an important part in this, but there’s certainly a difficult and uncertain art in trying to bring them up as half-decent human beings.
Two thoughts stay with me that relate to all this.
One is that the art lies in our attending, our noticing, both with respect to an act of making and then to what is made. This doesn’t take anything away from the business of working with materials or reduce art to conceptualism. It just inflects things a little differently. Working ‘as an artist’ I try to make a compelling image – something richer, more ambiguous and more sensuous than a concept – that I hope others will want to attend to. I used to do this mostly with paint on canvas and then with a mixture of words and images on paper that became books. But the times have made me wonder whether this is the best use of my skills which now, late in my life, seem to stem as much from the work I have done as a teacher as in the making of physical artefacts – drawings, photographs, enamel objects, books, whatever.
The other thought is that as a teacher I perform images – finding or borrowing the right words in the most compelling pattern at the right time, all so as to catch and redirect the attention of others. For brief moments in a conversation I actively sculpt words in the air and, on a good day, in such a way that people attend and take something from those brief word patterns into their hearts and minds, into their lives. This patterning of words in the air often has a particular aim, to try to facilitate the reordering of the world by drawing attention to different patterns of meaning, different ecologies of thought and action. It seems I am spending more and more time making new patterns – often out of the very old ones we’ve chosen to forget.
What does this make the part of me I have habitually called an artist? Am I now an artist/teacher, a performer, or just somebody who ‘chats’, a momentary patterner of empty air? I’m increasingly unsure as to how best to answer that question. What I do know is that a lifetime’s engagement in and understanding of art is quietly unravelling, slipping away from me as the tide of my life and the pressing issues of our times push me off in quite another direction, towards a task that as yet seems as nameless as it is uncertain.