“Every artist needs to find a balance between generosity and selfishness.”
I watch my friend, Rob Poynton, closely through the Zoom screen as he teaches me a new word in Spanish. I roll the sound around my mouth like a marble, testing its form. My tongue assumes new shapes as I mimic him tentatively. Bon. Da. Do. So. And then again, more emphatically. It surely needs an exclamation point, this new word. “Bondadoso!” There’s a joyful spirit in the sound of it, which is wholly appropriate because it loosely means kindness and/or generosity.
That we can find words in other languages that do better at describing a specific feeling is always fascinating to me. The new joy of having ‘bondadoso’ in my life is that, like all words that don’t have an exact equivalent from one language to another, it means more than its direct translation. It’s more than kind, too insipid; more than generous, too worthy. ‘Bondadoso’ has a kind of emotional onomatopoeia, it just sounds fun. Rob and his Spanish wife Bea concur. He writes in an email,
“‘Bondadoso’ means something more than ‘generoso’ or ‘amable’, it has a different feel to it, a kind of ‘roundness’ is what I would say. It suggests to me a kind of warmth, goodness. So kind of ‘loving generous’.”
I recently watched the documentary ‘Street Art Boy’ about the artist Keith Haring and I was struck by how ‘bondadoso’ he was. No matter how commercially successful he became, he was always joyfully giving away his art, through posters and public murals, or making it affordable for people via t-shirts and badges. Haring got me thinking about how I might be more ‘loving generous’ in my work, which has led to me trying an art gifting experiment.
The other day, as I was telling Rob about this new idea of giving away an original drawing each month through my newsletter, he responded by sharing ‘bondadoso’ with me. I fell in love with this word instantly. It has qualities that I aspire to, a sense of warmth, expansiveness, expression. Some words we inhale and some words we exhale. ‘Bondadoso’ feels, to me, like a powerfully propelled exhale. As you say it, you feel like you’re giving something away.
For many years, one of the barriers to me making art was the perception that to be an artist is to be selfish. Such a negative thing to be, I was always taught. As I now commit more fully to my art, I see more and more what kind of selfishness it requires. Long days alone, thinking and making. Turning down invitations. Being more antisocial than a human should be. As someone who has spent most of my life surrounded by people, in shared housing and shared studios, this pandemic isolation has come as a bit of a shock. But it has also come with a true revelation. Now that I live on my own and work on my own, funnily enough, my art practice is flourishing.
Another artist, my dear friend Vanessa Chamberlin, is someone who thinks about this subject a lot. She asks the question: “Why, in a world that’s burning, is it worth some people sitting on their own in a room making and writing things?” Great question Vanessa. Is making art inherently selfish? Are we artists ignoring the suffering in the world in order to satisfy our own creative desires? This may seem like a reductive question since so many artists challenge social norms and inequalities through their work, but my question about selfishness remains.
For years I thought it was more important to work in collaboration with others on projects that specifically addressed the fact the world is burning. I worked for over 15 years on climate change communications as a writer and designer. I wrote endless articles about making different consumer choices around sustainability. Then, when I felt energy efficient light bulbs and recycling weren’t cutting it sufficiently, I moved on to designing public exhibitions with climate scientists to communicate their work to the public.
During that time of building my design career, I thought about making personal art all the time. That’s just how my brain works, images arise in my imagination that I want to make real and there they stay, going around on a carousel in my mind, constantly bugging me. But I didn’t create space for art-making in my life. In order to communicate scientific research I pursued a kind of communal creativity, addressing other people’s concerns and questions. In my need to feel like I was making a material difference, I ignored my own questions, and an internal pressure to express myself, because I could not fathom sitting in a room by myself while the world was burning.
I’m sure many artists worry about this perception of selfishness and self-absorption. It is, after all, an old trope. Although it must be said that working alone is assuredly not the definition of an artist, many artists work in collaboration with others. I’m talking specifically about my experience here because, often, I still find myself seeking out permission to make space for myself and my imagination. Vanessa was also looking for permission to focus on her art, which she sought out in various texts. One of those she kindly shared with me was an essay from 1923 called ‘I and Thou’ by the German philosopher Martin Buber.
Buber argued there are two ways of engaging with the world. Firstly, the practical approach of ‘I — It’. This is a meeting with the world of things, which is to say the engagement between people and objects, people and commerce, people and power. ‘I — It’ is a process of consumption, accumulation and manipulation. Both practical and necessary to our survival, but also slightly empty. Zadie Smith, in her essay ‘Meet Justin Beiber’, writes about the ‘I — It’ of celebrity ‘love objects’ in contrast with Buber’s plea to move past the distraction of obsessive feelings to truly engaging with another living being.
“Imagine a meeting between Justin Beiber, global pop star, and Martin Buber, long dead jewish philosopher. I know I know!” Zadie writes with a wink, “But in my mind, these two are destined to meet. Beiber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German surname. Who am I to ignore these hints from the universe.” I love the way she gives permission to herself for this whimsical matchmaking. Zadie continues,
“Buber had a lot to say about meeting and greeting after all, although it’s true that by meeting, Buber intended something more than a hug, a flashed peace sign, and a photo. He believed that to really meet someone involved entering an intimate, complex and precious state. A state we achieve only rarely.”
Buber called this rare and precious state ‘I — Thou’. He wrote, “He who lives with ‘it’ alone is not a man.” Or a woman Martin, or a woman! But let’s not be pedantic here. To move our engagement strategy from ‘I — It’ to ‘I — Thou’, Buber says we must move from monologue to dialogue. And this is where I find his writing particularly helpful in relation to making art. The artist, if I can generalise here, is seeking the ‘I — Thou’ connection through their work. We are looking for the genuine sense of sharing an emotion, a connection, an experience. To me, this is art as an act of generosity in its own right.
As a viewer the fact that we receive something from the artist when we look at their work is fundamental to our being moved by it. This is a wholly non-financial exchange on another energetic level. The author Meg Rosoff gave a talk at The Story conference several years ago about this quality of communication, which she calls ‘thoroughness’. That sense of the artist, poet, novelist, playwright, choreographer speaking directly to the viewer or reader. The ability to make a connection with an individual person across time and space, so that we may feel something.
In his TED Talk Ethan Hawke (another of my favourite permission givers), elaborates on this sense of emotional service that artists provide to humanity.
“Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry, right? They have a life to live, and they’re not really that concerned with… anybody’s poems, until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don’t love you anymore, and all of a sudden you’re desperate for making sense out of this life… ‘What is happening to me?’ And that’s when art is not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance.”
This is the essence of Buber’s ‘I — Thou’, that sense of ephemeral sustenance that humans derive from the sharing of art. That sustenance, to me, has a sense of ‘bondadoso’ about it. Artists making work to connect with other humans in their hour of need is indeed ‘loving generous’. But in order to provide that service, the artist needs to engage with the ‘I — It’ of the world. We need to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, house ourselves. This necessitates selling work or finding another job to pay the bills. Every artist needs to find a balance between generosity and selfishness, not just to keep themselves in bread and water, but to also find time for making art.
That particular space in which to channel inspiration, is what Virginia Woolf called ‘A Room of One’s Own’. As she wrote in her celebrated 1929 essay on female creativity,
“…if we escape a little from the common sitting–room… if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone… then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.”
To sit in a room alone, to create the space in which to bring that dead poet or artist alive in myself, requires both privilege and selfishness. It means I have a roof over my head and enough money to pay the rent for said roof. I have to say no to many other things in order to make art, including paid work. And, honestly, I fail often at saying “no”. My personal challenge is to recognise where I am giving my time away to other people’s needs over my own desire to make art. As I did for many years as a designer and writer, always working to someone else’s brief.
In her essay ‘What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?’ Claire Dederer writes about the notion of the ‘art monster’, an artist who behaves horrifically, but who’s work is so celebrated that they are untouchable. Woody Allen is the primary subject of her essay, but her lengthy conclusion is where she embeds the real kicker. Dederer argues, the same forgiveness of men’s crimes and misdemeanours is not generally extended to women. What’s more, the transgressions which women commit in the name of art-making, are generally many orders of magnitude less catastrophic than paedophilia.
For women being an ‘art monster’ is less explicitly abusive and more about the small daily refusals to get caught up in domestic duties, which causes its own form of outrage in the family and in society at large. Dederer writes,
“A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.”
So there it is, the selfishness required of people who want to make art in the service of connecting with other people, means cutting yourself off from people, even your loved ones. This is the paradox of the ‘art monster’. Dederer continues,
“The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous. They say it in off-hand, ha-ha-ha ways: “I wish I had a wife.” What does that mean, really? It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.”
The book ‘Significant Others’, by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron, is an enraging testimony to the litany of creative women who sacrificed their own art to support their partner’s. Yes, (along with countless others) I’m looking at you Jackson Pollock. He who had his working life, and death, facilitated by his wife, the equally talented painter Lee Krasner. She is quoted in this book pointedly noting her erasure as an artist,
“I was put together with the wives, and when Rosenburg wrote his article many years ago, that the widow has become the most powerful influence… he never acknowledged me as a painter, but as a widow I was acknowledged. And, in fact, whenever he mentioned me at all following Pollock’s death, he would always say Lee Krasner, the widow of Jackson Pollock, as if I needed that handle.”
Sure, I can say with bravado “I want to be an art monster” and stand alongside all the women of history that have crushed the absurd notion that women are too nurturing to be great artists. But, truthfully, I’m also scared of being an art monster and the sacrifices it requires. As Dederer asks, “What if I’m not monster enough?”
I remember reading a biography of Barbara Hepworth’s daughter, Rachel Nicholson, in which she recounted that she only saw her mother at dinner times and on Christmas Day. The rest of the time Hepworth was locked away in her studio, which was out of bounds to her three children. I was upset to read this, not just because I love Hepworth’s art, but because I reject the idea that women artists can’t be good mothers.
We know this sexist accusation has been used against women and their careers forever. But neither do I want to negate Hepworth’s daughter’s experience of needing her mother. It sounds like Nicholson felt utterly abandoned. Did Hepworth fail to find the balance between generosity and selfishness? Was she too much of an art monster? More to the point though, are these questions just internalised patriarchal nonsense? Let’s remember, no one ever asks about a male artist’s parenting skills.
I, myself, do not have a partner or children to distract me from art making. Yet, I still find it hard to say “no” to the world in order to make art in the realm of ‘I — Thou’. Even something as simple as having a guest in my house is a distraction. I want to go for walks with them, cook meals with them, talk to them about how and why the whole world is burning. I crave that human contact in real time. The wisdom of Elizabeth Gilbert (the queen of permission giving) is often helpful in these moments of doubt about how to guard my time. She echoes Virginia Woolf’s command to escape ‘the common sitting–room’ in her paean to the creative process, ‘Big Magic’.
“Slip away from everyone else at the party and go off to dance alone with your ideas in the dark. Wake yourself up in the middle of the night in order to be alone with your inspiration, while nobody is watching.”
Art is, as Buber writes, “a deed that a man does with his whole being.” And to use one’s whole being, I’ve found out through this pandemic induced isolation, means being on my own to open a creative channel that, in Buber’s words, “confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power.” Art-making demands creative power, selfishness, a refusal to be distracted.
I think it’s because of all of this alone time, that I want to connect to people by giving some of my art away. I ask myself if gifting art is more ‘I — Thou’ than ‘I — It’? Do I create a more profound connection to a person when I give rather than to sell to them? Certainly the artworks sold for millions at auction seem to be very much about the ‘I- It’ of the exchange. Art as a status symbol is as real as art as a spiritual sustenance. What is our notion of value here?
But all this talk about the, somewhat clichéd, sacrifice and loneliness of artists is terribly serious when actually it can all be much lighter than that. It can be less worthy and more ‘Bondadoso!’ I have discovered for myself that it can be truly joyous to choose what leadership educator Margaret Wheatley describes as ‘right-action’ for oneself.
Wheatley’s essay ‘The Place Beyond Fear and Hope’, was recently shared with me by another friend, when I was momentarily lamenting the fact I have given up design collaborations to sit by myself in a room and make art. Wheatley writes about her decision to let go of her saviour complex by changing her need for successful outcomes. Or, as I mentioned earlier, abandoning “the need to make a material difference.” Wheatley writes,
“This was extremely heart-wrenching for me, more difficult than letting go of a love relationship. I felt I was betraying my causes, condemning the world to a terrible end. Some of my colleagues were critical, even frightened by my decision. How could I be so irresponsible? If we give up saving the world, what will happen?”
This is exactly how I felt about leaving my collaborative work with climate scientists behind, knowing that what I really needed to do was to make art as a form of self-expression. Wheatley (another permission giver), reassures me that it is enough just to act according to your sense of what you are supposed to be doing. She elaborates,
“I didn’t give up saving the world to protect my health. I gave it up to discover right-action, what I’m supposed to be doing. Beyond hope and fear, freed from success or failure, I’m learning what right-action feels like, its clarity and energy.”
And so it is that, through a certain lens, I have embarked on a life of selfishness in order to make art for myself while the world burns. Or, through an alternative lens, I have chosen a path that provides sustenance to myself and to others. I keep a steady stream of writing and design freelance work going to pay my rent, but my focus is on making art that allows me to express the ‘I — Thou’ within myself.
In my moments of feeling bad about this choice, I think about all the women in ages past, and still today, who could not and cannot make this choice. Women whose art was never taken seriously. I think about being more of an art monster. I look to the permission-givers. I aspire to be an ‘artista bondadosa’ where, like Keith Haring, no matter how successful I become in the ‘I — It’ of the shark-infested art world, I will always gift drawings to people as a form of meeting them in the ‘I- Thou’.
I give thanks to all the ‘artistas bondadosos’ out there in the world who are making small and large daily sacrifices to create work that shares something of themselves as sustenance for their fellow humans. And thanks to all my friends who share meaningful language and writing with me. Your generosity allows me to make sense of myself and the world around me, so I am better able to take right-action.