Do Anything

Tracey Emin’s My Bed
 
If you’re currently lying in a pool of bodily fluids on your unmade bed, alongside the attractive model you sketched last night before gorging, drinking and other things you can’t recall, then you don’t have to read this post. However, if you’re like me, a person who tries hard to do what’s right and feels guilty way too much…read on.

I’m currently reading the book, Antifragile, Things That Gain from Disorderby Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And by read, I mean that I read a section, reread it, think about whether I get it or not, and then usually read it again. It’s not that the book is difficult to understand, but more that it’s stuffed with ideas which he builds upon, and I want to keep up.  At this rate, I figure I’ll be finished the book by the end of the year.

But it doesn’t matter when I’m done, because I have already read the section that set me free. As an author, Taleb discusses the effect of criticism on a book, “Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it’s not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book.” He adds that nothing could be better for a book than being banned, as people will then go out of their way to find it and read it. The greater the energy that is used to discredit the author, the great the resulting fame. He adds “it is not possible to stamp out criticism; if it harms you, get out. It is easier to change jobs than control your reputation or public perception.” Taleb, who has a rather violent streak for a university professor, fantasizes about punching out an economist with whom he disagrees. He uses this fantasy to demonstrate to his publisher what “antifragile” means: that certain professions cannot be harmed by disorder. If he punched out the economist, sales of his book would probably rise due to his new notoriety. Taleb concludes with these life-changing words: “Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer.”

Wait, what? Can this be true? Is there no horrible thing I could do that would cause sales of my paintings to fall? Let’s say I committed some heinous crime, like having an affair with a sheep. (Please note: I personally know no sheep, and no sheep were harmed in the making of this post. I don’t even know if female/ovine relations are possible.) When my crime was discovered, I would be infamous immediately. Sure, some people who already own my art might become outraged and burn the works on principle. But there would also be people who would want to buy my paintings, just to say that they were done by that woman who went baaaad. (Sorry.) Critics who looked into my work, could look for hints of mental illness and depravity. In any case, the number of people who knew my name and my artwork would vastly increase.

Think of the artwork that shocks or is banned. Chris Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, caused great controversy for its use of elephant dung as a medium. When, years later, I read an article about how Ofili paints delicate watercolour portraits as a warm-up exercise each day, I knew his name immediately. He was not an artist who courted controversy, like Damian Hirst, but nevertheless, he was famous due to controversy. And I would expect that after the initial backlash, all the negativity had a positive effect on his career.

But luckily for sheep, there’s no need to go to extremes. The main takeaway for me to be braver and more daring in my art and my life. To quiet the little voices in my head that worry about whether a painting is consistent with my style, whether it will sell, whether a wider audience will “like” them. I say to my art, and to all the safe art I see, go for it! Why not do something daring? Be bold and different, try new methods and make rash decisions in the studio. Wreck things, spray-paint over them, waste expensive materials…just try to do something bigger than what’s been done before. Artists are superheroes, we’re antifragile, and we can do anything.

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4 thoughts on “Do Anything

  1. Isn’t it true, though, that Artists (as opposed to dabblers) are people who like to explore and discover? They press the boundaries. Break the bonds. Ultimately, they decide for themselves what they feel is ‘right’. Having broken the bonds, they may eventually retreat from having ‘gone to far’. Or conversely it may mean that they return repeatedly to ‘the scene of the crime’ in order to push things further and further. By definition Artists (as opposed to dabblers) have an internal compass and the strength to decide for themselves what they believe is right.This does not mean that Artists are – or should be – oblivious or unmindful of what others think. The American satirist Hunter S. Thompson once said something to the effect that the trick to being a good satirist is having the skill to throw a brick through a plate glass window and have people actually like the effect. Risky business to be sure. Just ask Oscar Wilde.If a person allows others to define what is right, for sure they will not be throwing bricks through plate glass windows. Allowing the definition of what is ‘right’ to be determined by others will inevitably cause a person to feel ‘guilty’, which is a sensation that invariably cripples.

  2. Hi Greg, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure if I completely understand what you’re saying, but I would say that there are as many different artist personalities as there are different types of art. Some push the boundaries of public taste or even decency and are often rewarded with press if not acclaim. Whether the art is good or even art, is a challenging question. But any artist can and must push his own boundaries. As you say, we may push into a place where we feel uncomfortable and retreat, but without testing our limits we don’t know what they are.

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