Tag Archives: philosophy

AWARD YOURSELF

9 Mar
Henrik Ibsen

“Everyone’s a winner, baby, that’s the truth.” (Henrik Ibsen Hot Chocolate). Henrik Ibsen painted by Henrik Olrik, 1879.

From the book Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney, Paul Johnson on the shitty, unfair and callously underappreciated lives of the world’s most undeniably creative people, who bring pleasure, beauty and inspiration to thousands or millions of people… plus Henrik Ibsen’s splendid but bonkers riposte.

“What strikes me, surveying the history of creativity, is how little fertile and productive people often received in the way of honours, money, or anything else. Has there ever been a more accomplished painter than Vermeer – a painter closer to perfection in creating beautiful pictures? How Vermeer must have cared about what he was doing! And how hard and intensely he must have worked to do it! Yet when he died, his widow had to petition the local guild for charity – she and her children came to abject poverty. That has been the fate of many widows of fine artists… It seems to me horrifying that Johann Sebastian Bach, a hardworking man all his life, at the top of his profession as organist and composer, and a careful and abstemious man too, should have died in poverty, as did the sister of Mozart, another prodigiously industrious and successful maker of music. Both these men were creators on a colossal scale, and consistently produced works of the highest quality. But they could not achieve security for their families.”

(For the reverse of this, i.e. how “successful” artists secretly had the independent wealth to do it all along and couldn’t really fail, see also Trustafarians of the Belle Époque)

Johnson disapproves of Ibsen’s bolshy, can-do response to not getting the plaudits he knew he deserved, but I think this is brilliant:

“One of the most curious sights in Oslo in the 1890s was Henrik Ibsen, walking to a public dinner, wearing his decorations. So keen was he on medals that he actually employed a professional honours broker* to get them from every government in Europe. He wore them on his dress clothes, reaching to his waist and even below it, and he often pinned a selection to his everyday suits. Thus weighted down and clanking, he strode nightly to his favourite café, for schnapps… But his habit was unbecoming unless (and this seems unlikely) his intent was humorous.”

Unbecoming? Sod that. Walking around with a bunch of honours and medals as normal day wear is my new sartorial goal. Award yourself the prize.

*Note: These types of brokers still exist and probably explain some of the odd and random people awarded various medals, titles and honorary degrees for doing nobody-is-entirely-sure-what.

A MESSAGE TO ARTISTS IN 2016

18 Jan
Bastards1

By Martin J. Walker, 1968.

Just like half the salaried people who work in arts organisations, Career Suicide has been on leave since the start of December “because it’s nearly Christmas” and has not resumed normal service until well into January because “we’ve been snowed under with work since we came back into the office”. OR SOMETHING. More soon, though.

The print above was made by Martin J. Walker in 1968, when Hornsey College of Art (later part of Middlesex Polytechnic, then Middlesex University) was occupied by students after a dispute about Student Union funds lead to an opportunity for the students to express a more general dissatisfaction with their art education. Plus ça change, etc. For some reason a reproduction of it is currently available to buy from the Victoria & Albert museum in London.

PS: Really… don’t let them.

NEO-THOREAU

18 Aug

henry-david-thoreau

Discussions of economics and making a living from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854):

SELLING AND AVOIDING THE NECESSITY OF SELLING

MiffyArtistRijks

“Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off—that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed—he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?”

GO UP GARRET AT ONCE

“This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.”

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CONFUSING ART WITH ARCHAEOLOGY

14 Aug

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Kakuzo Okakura, 茶の本 (The Book of Tea, 1906):

“We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our very individuality establishes in one sense a limit to our understanding; and our aesthetic personality seeks its own affinities in the creations of the past. It is true that with cultivation our sense of art appreciation broadens, and we become able to enjoy many hitherto unrecognised expressions of beauty. But, after all, we see only our own image in the universe, – our particular idiosyncracies dictate the mode of our perceptions.”

“Another common mistake is that of confusing art with archaeology. The veneration born of antiquity is one of the best traits in the human character, and fain would we have it cultivated to a greater extent. The old masters are rightly to be honoured for opening the path to future enlightenment. The mere fact that they have passed unscathed through centuries of criticism and come down to us still covered with glory commands our respect. But we should be foolish indeed if we valued their achievement simply on the score of age. Yet we allow our historical sympathy to override our aesthetic discrimination. We offer flowers of approbation when the artist is safely laid in his grave. The nineteenth century, pregnant with the theory of evolution, has moreover created in us the habit of losing sight of the individual in the species. A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school. We classify too much and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.”

BUY NINE, GET SIX DESTROYED FOR FREE

17 Jul

A PARABLE FOR ARTISTS

The early Christian writer Lactantius– who advised the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I– told the story of how the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus acquired the Sibylline books which were kept in Rome’s Capitoline temple for consultation, guidance and divination in times of trouble. Although Priscus bought them, they were eventually considered priceless and remained in the temple for many centuries until they and the temple were destroyed by fire in 83 BC.

The Sibylline books took their name from their keeper, the Cumaean Sibyl, high priestess of the Apollonian Oracle at Cumae near modern day Naples. At some point between 616 and 579 BC, she made Priscus an offer he initially thought he could refuse:

They say that Amalthea, the Sibyl from Cumae, brought nine books to the king Tarquinius Priscus, and asked 300 gold pieces for them. The king refused, saying it was far too much, and derided the woman, saying she was mad. So in the sight of the king, she burnt three of the books, and demanded the same price for the remaining six. Tarquinius thought her even madder. When she burnt three more, but persisted in demanding the same price, the king was thrown into turmoil and bought the remaining books for the original price.

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In recent years some people have occasionally mooted the idea of artists going on strike to drive home how much local, national, international and art world economies rely upon the work that creative people do, much of it– as we all know– woefully underpaid and unappreciated, taken for granted, or not paid at all. I have no idea how an artist strike would work in practice, or what artists comprehensively withdrawing their labour would actually entail; I don’t think anybody does because it’s pretty much a cloud cuckoo land proposition. We already have a huge cohort of scab artists who’ll undercut and undermine colleagues who refuse to work for low or no pay. The artistic and creative industries rely upon this fact to a very large extent, actually, hence the constant issuing forth from corporate offices of so-called opportunities that are “viral”, “get your work in front of industry leaders” or “great exposure” but also PURELY BY COINCIDENCE OBVIOUSLY would cost them thousands if they paid anybody to do them properly.

Even so, I do think it’s worth artists maintaining an inner Sibyl who simply won’t negotiate or be bullied when it comes to the value of what she does and how much value it brings to other people. Be the prophetess who would rather burn her work and be thought mad than give it away.

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