Art and writing prizes, from the children’s art competition organised by your local paint shop to the Nobel Prize for Literature, are guaranteed to generate conversation and controversy. Unlike sports that can be judged on the time it takes to run a marathon or the points scored in a game of football, art cannot be objectively measured. Performance arts like music and dancing are to some extent judged on skill and technique, but paintings and poems often defy rational analysis.
With the annual Rio Tinto Martin Hanson Memorial Art Awards coming up in Gladstone in October, hopes and expectations are again setting artist hearts aflutter and creating its own internal controversies. The poor judge might have hundreds of entries to sift through and consider, but each artist also has to choose which two works from the past year’s harvest to enter.
No one can deny the subjective or even biased assessments generated by such an art award. Besides pure artistic merit (however you want to define that) here are some factors that might influence the choice of a winner:
The forty thousand dollar question (this is the total prize pool for this year’s RTMH Art Awards) is whether artists themselves should at all be influenced by such considerations when making or submitting a work. If the judge is known to be an outspoken environmental activist in his own work, should you submit an art work commenting on the looming extinction of polar bears? If she tends towards universal truths portrayed with immaculate technical skill, should you try for a Goya-like etching about war and displacement? Can you kick business in the balls with a jab at money grabbing capitalism or should you sweet-talk them by showing how industry can be art?
In my opinion this is where it is so important to stay true to your own voice (see also Finding your artistic voice). If you are a Matisse, don’t try to be a Bacon. If you are a Gauguin, don’t try to be the next Damien Hirst. In writing, if science fiction is your forte, don’t aim to write like James Joyce or Hemingway.
This does not mean that you should totally ignore the relevance of the competition when choosing from the art you have already made. You do want to say something. Art is both form and content. But art has to be honest and true. Selling your soul to the devil for a chance at the prize just isn’t on, so don’t even start dreaming about how much paint and supplies those dollars could buy.
Awards and prizes are lovely. They can be motivating, endorsing, soothing to the ego and just plain good for the back pocket. Just don’t let it go to your head. Because art is nothing if it isn’t free.
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.