Not long ago I had the pleasant experience of becoming for the first time an exhibited artist. This was because some of my self-published zines were included in at exhibition at the Childers art gallery along with a bunch of other zine and comic makers from around Australia.
I was a little bit self-conscious about my zines (which I don’t think are especially beautiful, and which often by the time I’ve finished writing I can’t be bothered putting effort into the layout) becoming artworks in a gallery, but mostly it was nice firstly to think that somebody likes what I make enough to include it in an exhibition; and secondly because it was kinda like ticking something off the bucket list. You know, win a sporting grand final, get arrested, do an art exhibition.
I remember quite clearly a moment that must have been at least 7 years ago. I was living in Miranda (suburban Sydney), studying theology and going through one of those periods, as you do, when I was feeling a bit unhappy and a bit unsatisfied with my life.
One of the things I sometimes do in those times is sit down and write stream of consciousness as a kind of self-administered therapy. And I remember sitting on the train and writing that even though I didn’t see myself as an artist, I wanted to hang out with artists.
I haven’t kept that scrap of paper, but I still think about it sometimes. I think about what it was that I wanted to hang out with artists for. Was it because my life was lacking in paintings and poetry? Possibly, but I don’t think it was just that. I think what I was yearning for was what I still see as the real role of art – to look beyond pure surface value and to see the things we don’t immediately see.
In art this works a couple of ways. One is to look at a blank page and raw materials like paint or pen and be able to see possibilities of what can be created. The other is to look at things in our world or everyday life and to see what is not immediately obvious – to show things in a new way. For me at that time, living in the same suburb as one of Australia’s biggest shopping malls, with foxtel on the tv at home and friends (wonderful people though they were) whose dreams in life mostly included a job, a mortgage and a family; I think what I was yearning for was people who found beauty and value beyond just the values of our consumer society. People who believed that something else was possible. Who could see the unseen.
Years have passed since that day on the train, and I’m blessed to say that I have been friends with some extraordinarily talented artists, be they visual artists, writers or musicians. I am constantly inspired by things my friends create. But I’ve also in a way changed the way that I think about art. I’ve even come to agree with art movements, as pretentious as they were, like Dada and Fluxus; who called for the abolition of art.
Both were inspired by Marcel Duchamp, the French artist from the early 20th century who famously once submitted a plain urinal (which he played no part in manufacturing) as an artwork for exhibition. Years later, Duchamp said “The idea of the artist as a sort of superman is comparatively recent. This I was going against. In fact, since I’ve stopped my artistic activity, I feel that I’m against this attitude of reverence the world has. Art, etymologically speaking, means to ‘make.’ Everybody is making, not only artists, and maybe in coming centuries there will be a making without the noticing.”
In a world where the school careers advisor gives us a list of jobs and tells us to choose our future, where we are told that voting for whichever politician makes us feel the least sick in the stomach is our part in shaping society, where advertising implores us to express our individuality by which mass produced items we buy; true creativity – seeing the unseen – is completely missing from most of our lives.
Of course within this there is space, as a hobby or if you can manage to make it commercially viable, to carve out a niche as an “artist”; whose role it is to create things that look nice or entertain or make people think. The problem with this kind of artist though is that the “creative industry” is an industry like any other – churning out products that will make a profit for the boss or the shareholders.
Or even for the majority of artists, who never make any money from art, we fail because by defining specific people as “artists” and specific activities as “art”, we reduce everybody else’s role to the non-creative consumer. Rather than the artist’s creativity being a spark to light more creativity in the kindling of our world, it is a single flare of imagination that reminds you of the darkness everywhere else. The role of the artist is currently to create things so that the rest of us can be entertained. So that the rest of us don’t have to create.
What I love about art is still that same characteristic – it sees and shows the unseen. It opens us up to new possibilities we hadn’t contemplated before. But like I’ve already said and as I’m sure you’ll agree, not all art does this. And at the same time, our dominant conception of art also rarely asks the question of what if there are better ways of seeing the unseen than just pictures, poetry and songs?
Surely the ability to see things unseen and to stimulate imaginations is not limited to those of us who have the gift of being able to paint or string a few words together. Yet that is who our stages, microphones and galleries are usually reserved for.
The kind of art I’m calling for is not the abolition of what we call art (I quite like pictures and songs after all), nor is it incorporating “non-art” everyday things (like Duchamp’s urinal or Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys smacking a piano with a shoe) into established “art” mediums. What I want for us is to take the things we love in art (beauty, humour, creativity, insight), and try to see and show them across all facets of life.
Make everywhere we go into an installation, every building into a gallery. Turn our lives into moving, breathing artworks that carry everywhere the beauty of a watercolour, the daring of an avant-garde performance piece, the imagination of an expressionist painting, and which fulfill the highest calling of art – to see the unseen, and to inspire others to do the same.
In the end, the creative output I want to leave the world is not a few photocopied booklets which sit in a gallery in Childers, even though I am quite proud of those zines and that someone wants to display them in that way.
The artwork I want to be known by is whether I lived my life in a way that fully did justice to all the creativity I’ve been given. Whether I lived in a way that dug beneath the surface layers to find deeper truths. And whether the way I lived showed others new possibilities for their own lives. If songs or pamphlets I write, or pictures I draw, contribute to that; then all the better.