Most of my favorite artists follow a fairly standard trajectory. They start out okay or good, have a period of getting better and better, peak, then slowly or rapidly decline. (Some of them die young, before the decline begins, but that’s another kind of question.) I have now been making work for about twenty-five years and wonder if my decline has already begun, or will begin any minute. I believe there are artistic strategies for staying good over a long period of time but, then again, am not sure any such strategy can really work for long.
Chief among these strategies is produce less. There is an enormous pressure on the artist to over-produce. I myself succumb to this pressure far too often. (It is also my nature to be prolific, but I think an artist should, at times, work against their own nature in the name of quality control. Or at least I used to think this.) Already I feel my artistic decline approaching. I feel it in my attitude towards my own work: there is less tension, less confusion, I feel more experienced, more sure of myself, and suspect that all of these can only be bad signs. In general, I also have less energy, am more tired, than I was when I was younger. This is of course normal. But I fear that my work now also has less energy and wonder constantly where this road can lead, how to turn it inside out, do something unexpected. Honestly I don’t think I have the perspective to really know what’s what. Then again, what kind of perspective is required to take a genuine artistic risk?
We live in a youth-obsessed culture and, as I express these anxieties, wonder if I am simply falling into this youth-obsessed trap. The artist must believe in their own work to keep going. But no one believes in their own work more fervently than a bad artist. (Robert Hughes: “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”) Faith is always a struggle with doubt, and one aspect of my work has always been about trying to find a place where art actually feels worth doing. So in one way, all this is nothing new, I have struggled with these doubts for as long as I can remember. But in another way, something is shifting, perhaps the ground out from under me.
For the past few years, much of my inner life has been consumed by overwhelming feelings of failure. I spend a great deal of time analyzing these feelings (time better spent doing almost anything else), wondering if anything I could do might actually feel like success. To leave art for activism? To make better work, or work that was seen by a larger number of people? To write books that are still being read 100, 200, 300 years from now? (Of course I won’t know if they are.) It occurs to me that my failure is also a failure of imagination, a failure to imagine something worth doing, to imagine a success worth having. Then I wonder if it’s a problem with me or a problem with success. Am I empty or is success?
For the past few year I have also been searching for some way to write about these questions that doesn’t sound only like complaining, like whining, like a failure to acknowledge my relatively easy, reasonably successfully artistic life. Then, today, in the first chapter of the novel Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen, I read this:
Slowly, [Hieronymus] Bosch came to admit that he would never be famous. He would never be the talk of this town, or any other. The recognition ached like a body full of bruises. He could hardly wait to take his place before his easel every morning to find out what his imagination had waiting for him, yet he had to make peace with the bristly fact that recognition was a boat built for others. He had to content himself of the rush of daily finding – the way milled minerals mixed precisely with egg whites create astounding carmines, creams, cobalts; how the scabby pot-bellied rats scurrying through his feverscapes were not really pot-bellied rats at all, but the lies flung against the true church day after day.
Of course Bosch’s work is today revered and remembered, while so many of his contemporaries are more or less forgotten. At the end of the day, I think this is the only accurate definition of art: something that lasts, outlasts its contemporaries, survives, captures the imagination of the future. And what does the future know? Why think the future knows any more than now? But this passage was also a reminder of how I have never been able to take refuge in the idea of artistic work as its own reward. I always feel that making art must lead to something else.
I was going to finish there, but then remembered the three quotes I long ago copied out from Panegyric Volume 1 by Guy Debord:
Never to have given more than very slight attention to questions of money, and absolutely none to the ambition of holding some brilliant post in society, is a trait so rare among my contemporaries that some will no doubt consider it incredible, even in my case. It is, however, true, and it has been so constantly and abidingly verifiable that the public will just have to get used to it
Our only public activities, which remained rare and brief in the early years, were meant to be completely unacceptable: at first, primarily due to their form; later, as they acquired depth, primarily due to their content. They were not accepted.
This time, what was an absolutely new phenomenon, which naturally left few traces, was that the sole principle accepted by all was precisely that there could be no more poetry or art – and that something better had to be found.
And I suddenly remembered how much respect and admiration I have for artists who refuse the system in anything resembling a significant manner. The power of that refusal, how it speaks so directly to my frequent disgust at the corruption of art and of the world. I wonder so much if my struggle is also a form of this refusal, or at least half-refusal, or if more honestly it is a form of self-sabotage. There is something pathetic in only refusing half-way, but also something worth thinking about. There are so many different and ineffective ways to fight. But what is ineffective now might still some day strike.