Friday, 30 October 2015

The artist at the university of life

I was 14 when I got my first job - two weeks on the back of a tractor, planting potatoes. It was a fine way to spend Easter. My second job was as a labourer on the site of a football stadium. I was 15 and still at school. My classmates had gone off on ‘cultural visits’ to Paris and Rome but my parents thought that, if I wanted to go on to college, I should learn a little about the ‘real world’ first.  It took me a long time to realise how right they were. 

My father was a furnace man and I spent my last two years at school working every school holiday at his iron foundry – Easter, summer and Xmas. 12-hour days were spent mixing sand for the moulds, helping pour the castings and then wheeling the steaming sand back to my mill to start all over again the next day.  The foundry was an image lifted from Piranesi crossed with a scene from Dante’s inferno.   

This was the first of several hard and dirty jobs I did - my first term at the University of Life.

I did go on to college but did not graduate. But I did carry on at the University of Life for several more terms – as a railway porter, chicken factory worker, jute mill worker and road mender – before I took a job as a psychiatric nurse. That last experience transported me (eventually) back to academia and (even later) a long career as a university academic and psychotherapist.

I didn’t realise it at the time but my short career as a psychiatric nurse completed my graduation from the University of Life. 

Previously I had simply been grafting with my hands – getting sweaty and dirty. In my time in psychiatry I could stay clean and gain privileged entrance to the worlds both above and below the grind of everyday life. Here I was granted access to the assorted hells that passed for ‘ordinary life’ – all conveniently passed off as one form of ‘mental illness’ or another. Later, a wise old friend reminded me that the mind is just an idea – and cannot be sick, other than in a metaphorical sense. I realised then – and know very well now – that ‘mental illness’ is a metaphor for everything that we might find disagreeable in life – whether in ourselves or others.

I was reminded of all of this when I re-read Brendan Behan who said that “people who say that hard labour is a good thing have never done any”. I can’t recall the last time I met anybody who, as my father might have said, had ‘done any real work’. Most of the people I have associated with over the past 30-odd years have been dying of exhaustion because they had to meet a publishing deadline or give an extra lecture.  But, I must admit to having used much the same excuses. I need to remind myself that I never really had to 'work' – at least not in the sense that my father understood it. Instead, I did ‘occasional jobs’ and then got an opportunity to do something that interested me and ultimately fulfilled me. That kind of 'work' can never be called ‘labour’.

Of all the jobs I have done in my life, being a low-paid ‘nursing attendant’ was both the hardest – and the easiest. Hard, in the sense that I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing and easy, in that I finally realised that all I had to do was sit, watch and listen – waiting was something that came naturally to me. ‘Thirty years later I had written umpteen books about ‘just sitting and listening’ but none of them really captured the essence of the ‘thing’ itself. I can feel the memory now, but I can’t tell you – in words – what it is. If you had the time, I might be able to take you to that realisation.

None of this has much of anything to do with art. No. I am wrong - it has everything to do with art. Art is about expressing that which cannot be expressed in words. Wittgenstein famously said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, prompting his friend Frank Ramsay later to say - What we can't say we can't say, and we can't whistle it either."  

Wittgenstein was a philosopher who understood that language – however sophisticated - is overrated. Although not an artist, Wittgenstein had the ‘vision thing’.

We may not be able to say it – or whistle it – but we can paint it, or shape it in clay, stone or metal, or pull together a bunch of objects that might signal ‘that of which we cannot speak’?

The only thing that interest me is the ineffable – that ‘thing’ which is beyond words. Maybe that is what interests all visual artists.

The work I do as an artist can sometimes be frustrating – due to my own temper or lack of skill. Sometime it can be demanding – when someone pushes forward a deadline. But it cannot ever be called ‘labour’. If approached properly the ineffable will speak for itself through the work. All the artist has to do is have the patience to allow this to happen.

And so I am back where I started all those years ago – waiting.

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