Last November I went to Denmark and dressed up like a pig. I had some interesting conversations with the few people who attended the performance (two were gallery staff at Viborg Kunstal) and lounged about Viborg, a small, wealthy town in the Jutland countryside. I also had some reflective discussions with my friend and Medieval helpdesk collaborator, David, about why we do this kind of thing (art), especially when it involves a lot of hassle for very little pay. Having reached a certain stage career and become a mum, formerly adventurous missions are beginning to feel like an inconvenience, whilst also deeply self-indulgent. And yet, here I was, reading a script dressed (badly) as a pig.
Following our performance and after a second pint of strong Danish beer, I became convinced that art is a complete waste of time, and then circled back to the conclusion that this is precisely why it’s valuable (a point I’ve argued elsewhere). David observed that you can make the same point about music or literature, and that art is what separates us from the beasts. I think contemporary art takes it further, though, often wearing its pointlessness like a badge and generally pissing off those who would like to see put to more practical or impactful ends.
I wondered, is doing something totally pointless exactly when action is urgently needed a kind of subversion? Perhaps even more subversive than doing something practical (like protesting) in that it ignores the problem completely? That is, the problem of living in an overworked, disempowered society where people can’t agree on anything (and anyway democracy is dead) whilst the climate is collapsing. If the world would start to end more quickly, with cataclysmic events on more people’s doorsteps (keeping in mind that cities are bursting into flames – which never used to happen, did it?), then maybe there’d be serious lifestyle changes; people would at least stop driving cars everywhere and eating loads of meat and buying single use plastic. But for this to happen on a larger more significant scale, things will have to get much, much worse – and then it’ll be too late. It’s true that our house is on fire, but it seems we’re happy to slowly asphyxiate on the sofa whilst watching Netflix.
The great thing about making art is that it forces you to take a long hard look at yourself. No one is reassuring you that what you do is important and that you’re making a difference, and to choose to do it anyway takes a certain amount of… not exactly courage, but a will to see something through, to ‘carry something over the finish line’, as David puts it. I think of the late Ursula LeGuin, Carolee Schneemann, and just today, Agnés Varda – women who developed their practice against the grain for most of their careers. Last night I went to a truly inspiring performance by a friend, Feral, inspired by the work of Anne Briggs, about how women face losing their creative, adventurous spirits as the pressures and obligations of life press in on them. Creative projects become heavy burdens when carried uphill and against the wind.
In my other pursuits, I manage an art platform, write about art and give workshops to artists, all of which seem relatively pointless in the grand scheme of things. I often think about whether a career in charity work or activism would be more fulfilling. It’s possible it would just make me more smug and angry at people doing nothing to change the world for the better or even address their own irresponsible, selfish behaviours. I already feel that way most of the time as someone with a lowish carbon footprint and a general avoidance of consumerism (except for when I fly somewhere or buy things).
Finding meaning in the things we do is essential to our survival. There is a real danger in not having interests and being swallowed by the tedium of everyday actions with no sense of purpose. A worry I had when approaching motherhood was that I would let go of the things that thus far had sustained me creatively and professionally, a fear made worse by numerous warnings from those who paused or abandoned their careers. I haven’t, but my grip on my work activities has loosened somewhat, which is probably a healthy thing. I still struggle to find a place where art and life meaningfully meet, and to explain to some of my more practically minded friends the wider significance of what I do.
On the flight back from Denmark a nightmare scenario flashed before my eyes: what if we crashed and my son one day learned of the circumstances of my death – the utter random senselessness of it. But then, people die unnecessarily all the time, at least I was doing something that interested me, rather than fulfilling a duty or obligation.
My practicality is always at odds with the side of me that wants to explore ideas and let my imagination lead. Guilt threatens to shut down the creative impulse, hanging over my writing and occasional art foray like a dark, ominous shadow. In these moments I remind myself of the the wise words of Ursula Le Guin, ‘resistance and change often begin in art’.
This blog, somewhat neglected these days, has always been about celebrating, commemorating and commenting on folly; making a case for art because it’s a fundamentally human thing to do. Art presents vehicles for working through and expressing things that otherwise remain silent and hidden. It’s been with us since the beginning; it need not exist and yet it does. And, as far as utility is concerned, it serves an important function in showing us ourselves, in all our infuriating complexity and dark contradiction.