There is no magic road to knowing oneself. Introspection and contemplation of that age-old question “Who am I?” is no guarantee of answers or insight into what makes you tick. While you cannot know the mind of another, your own mind can be equally shrouded in mystery, your heart a curtained room.
I was born in two minds, borne on the hands of science and the wings of art and I know not who I am. I try to walk the blurred dividing line between rationality and surrealism, drunk on the nectar of the gods, swaying to and fro. Now I am scientist; now I am artist.
This is the eternal paradox of my life – I do not belong. Repos ailleurs. And yet I believe that this tension between two ways of seeing life is the wellspring of my creativity. It is the spark that flies between two opposites and crackles a universe into life.
As I prepare to cross the line back into veterinary science, I peer through a crack in the smudged window of my soul and see the phoenix wink at me. It has been silently growing for years. I never knew.
Vertigo hits me as I try to balance my oscillating soul. The ballast of my art and writing keeps me from falling headlong into a scientific abyss. It works both ways. I need the scientific stimulation to fertilise my creativity.
I am on the road again. A new adventure waits. And “peace comes dropping slow”.
Inspiration, not unlike nature, can swing from barrenness to fecundity with frustrating fickleness. And then there are the moments of despair when, in the midst of productiveness, you are still left barehanded. “Water, water, everywhere,/ Nor any drop to drink.”*
I recently finished the novel The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel, author of the wonderful Booker Prize-winning, best-selling, made-into-a-movie Life of Pi. It left me unsatisfied and confounded. Then I came across a review in The Guardian mirroring my feelings. The reviewer, Alice O'Keeffe, made an interesting observation:
Perplexed by this strange, faltering novel, I turned back to Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker prize winner, to remind myself what the author is capable of. I was struck by this passage, in the “author’s note” at the beginning (the “author” is a character in the book, so the note is presented as part of the story): before “the author” began work on Pi, he tells us, he was trying to write “a novel set in Portugal in 1939”, but he abandoned it, as “there comes a moment when you realise that… an element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story… your story is emotionally dead, that’s the crux of it.”
At a time when I was struggling with a short story of my own that had “an element missing”, it gave me pause. I had been writing this story on and off for a couple of months, in idle moments snatched from work days, housewifery and visitors. My brain was buzzing with ideas for other stories, poems, and paintings, but I wanted to focus on this one story and get it done, before moving on to something else.
I had been reasonably pleased with my writing and after a stalemate on how to craft the ending, had had a brilliant idea that would nicely tie in with the theme and give the story more depth. It would be sharp and thought-provoking and right on target. Or so I thought.
When I started rewriting the story, everything collapsed. It was like dough that had been near perfect but was now ruined by overworking. It was a mayonnaise-in-the-making to which you had added too much oil in one go. It was a fresh watercolour painting in which the colours were becoming dull and dirty from overpainting. A poem that in rethinking had slipped form its tightrope and came crashing down.
It was, in other words, a mess.
In the midst of all that creating, I was left bare-handed, bare-hearted and depressed.
Ever hopeful, I will not delete my story, although I probably should. For the time being it will go in the drawer of delinquencies, where I keep my half-formed, crooked specimens like the formalin-jarred teratologies of an avid embryologist.
It is small comfort that a novelist of Martel’s stature can suffer similar gestation woes. Learning that the Queen of England has a headache does not make yours any less painful or at least annoying. It is just one of the paradoxes of a creative life, “the agony and the ecstasy”.
It is what it is and one learns to live with it. I would rather have aborted art than no art at all.
*(from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
When my mom built her cob house in 1999/2000 on a shoestring budget, she coined a phrase for something she had been practicing for a long time already – creative poverty. It is the ability to come up with creative solutions for problems that would otherwise be solvable with a lot of money. With a budget of ZAR45,000 (about $4,000 in today’s terms) to build a living space with attached art gallery, she was going to need it.
The decision to build with cob was part of the solution. It is an ancient building method using a mixture of clay, sand and straw, not unlike adobe but without the need to make bricks first. Once you have a solid foundation, a timber framework, and a roof, you just fill in the walls like a child with playdough.
It was a DIY project like no other. Window frames and doors could be sourced cheaply as second hand building material. Old windscreens made interesting windows, as did fragments of glass recycled into lead glass windows. Coloured bottles built into the walls brought both light and beauty. Shelves, basins, nooks and crannies were shaped out of the mud itself, adding timber or ceramic where needed.
It was one big art work growing out of the earth itself and out of my mother’s bottomless well of creativity. Best of all, you could add on as you pretty much pleased – a nook, a niche, an extra window – without too much consideration for the building plans.
Poverty and similar instances of limited resources (material, knowledge, time or distractions) often seem to stimulate creative thinking. It is when you have forgotten the camping kettle that you will devise a topless beer can for a billy. When you don’t know how to cook an omelette, your experiments might lead you to a soufflé. When fossil fuels start killing your planet, you come up with innovative energy alternatives. The legendary measure of a (South African) man’s greatness is the number of things he can fix with a piece of wire (bloudraad).
Creative poverty takes the fragments of a broken tile and turns it into mosaic. It is the knack of turning an oops into a wow. But it is also the courage to stand up in the face of limitations and stake your claim. It is throwing your bank statement to the wind and the angels and the gods, drawing a line in the dust with your big toe and saying: Dig here; we’re building a house.
Once on a long drive I marvelled at the colours of the autumn grass against the backdrop of a blue sky. There was a surreal glow to them, a clarity and radiance and warmth that seemed to emanate from the very light itself. Then I took off my sunglasses. The scene lost its glory. I felt cheated. What I had thought beautiful had been a lie, a filtered version of the more prosaic truth.
Years have passed and I have since gazed on many more beautiful scenes seen through rose-coloured (or merely polarised) glasses. I have often contemplated the legitimacy of “enhanced reality” and whether such beauty should be allowed within the framework of my aesthetic appreciation.
Could I really (truthfully) exclaim at the turquoise water, the shimmering fields, and the flower petals, if it was merely the result of filtered light? It seemed to me, even before the ubiquity of Photoshop et al, wrong to tweak an image to get a better picture. Surely that was not honest and honesty was important, whether in art or elsewhere.
I think I have at long last let go of my purist viewpoint. Because beauty, after all, does lie in the eye of the beholder.
In her book Still Life with Teapot Brigid Lowry ponders the place of truth in memoir writing:
“Shall I tell the truth? Line up all the facts, as tidy as a row of pins? No, for the truth is just a wire you walk along, stepping gingerly until you meet thin air, and facts are stale old things, wrinkled as dried mushrooms. Why not plump them out a little, soak them until they swell, rearrange the aunties and make my boyfriends even more handsome than they were.”
Beauty and art depends on a little deception. It is the right of the artist to choose what to show and what to hide, what to remember and what to conveniently forget. A story is created as much by what you leave out as by what you tell. If you write that the woman had a son, are you lying if you don’t mention that she had three other sons as well?
A photo is only a small frame of some greater reality, sometimes through a coloured lens. “We see through a glass darkly” and see clearer for that.
So don’t spoil a good story by insisting on the facts. Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
The question ‘What is art?’ has kept laymen and philosophers throughout the ages busy and confused. But there is another issue that can be just as controversial – ‘When is art successful?’
This month I held my third solo art exhibition, also the first one in Australia and at an independent venue (the others being at my mother’s art gallery and my own house respectively). And as before I was asked the question ‘How did your exhibition go?’ Of course, I had already asked myself exactly the same thing.
So how does one measure the success of an art exhibition? Or book or composition or performance?
The extremes are easy to determine. If you only get bad reviews and no sales, that can be seen as failure, at least temporarily. If on the other hand it is a sell-out with glowing reviews, it must be a success. It is in the intermediate zone where things get fuzzy. Does a sale of one work but the same glowing reviews count as success? If you make a fortune but art critics look down their noses at you, is that failure?
In my opinion there are four things that determine the success of an art work or body of art – money, time, institutional recognition and user appreciation.
Show me the money
It is a sad fact that monetary value is the most important measure of success for most enterprises. Whether it be books, shoes, sheep or paintings, if you don’t sell enough of it, you are counted as a failure. A best-selling novel or a painting sold for millions is the stamp that says ‘Success’.
Sorry, but you’ll have to die first
If you’re not making a pile of money at the moment, you still have a chance at posthumous fame and fortune. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his entire lifetime. More than a century later, no one would dare call him or his art a failure. Rembrandt died in poverty, as did Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Only a handful of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 poems were published while she was alive and Franz Kafka died without even one work published. Other popular contemporary artists and writers have now been all but forgotten.
Is your art successful? Hmm... Could you wait a hundred years and then ask again?
The award goes to…
You haven’t made a fortune and you’re not ready to die yet but the critics are gushing and the awards are rolling in. Congratulations! Institutional recognition from the art establishment counts for a lot. Whether it is in the form of favourable reviews, invitations to interviews or writer’s festivals, galleries buying your art, or being given a prestigious award, when the authorities say you’re okay, you’ve made it.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the fame will last. Many famous artists were shunned by the establishment of the day and vice versa. See Vincent van Gogh above for a case in point.
This is the one thing that always hits the ego mark and can make financial failure, disregard by the authorities and before-your-time complexities fade like a drop of ink in water (i.e. it doesn’t completely disappear but at least it is very much diluted). The sincere comments of viewers, the tear-in-the-eye smile of listeners, the I-couldn’t-put-it-down astonishment of readers – the fact that your work has somehow resonated with someone, that is the ultimate measure of success. Or so we like to tell ourselves.
The month has passed. The exhibition has been taken down. The party is over. How did it go? Was it a success? In some aspects at least, yes. As for the rest? Only time will tell.