Principles of a Poor Artist: for Jerzy Grotowski — Matt Travers

‘It’s better to spend your time failing at something you want to do than to waste your
life becoming a successful nobody’ (Henry Miller)

Artists, do not be seduced by the American Dream. It will devalue your work
and leave you longing for a false ideal of success. This ingenious piece of social
engineering would have you believe that so long as you work hard and think positive
then you have a fair shot at success: talent always rises to the top and if you’re not at
the top then you only have yourself to blame. Pursuing the American Dream means
accepting that the odds are stacked against you, and getting on with the business of
succeeding over others. It’s a reptilian mindset which is now no longer confined to
the Gordon Gecko’s of the business-world, but has come to latch on to all walks of
life. In the artworld, this mentality finds its equivalent in the artist’s obligation to
constantly self-promote: if you believe in your own brand, then, with the right kind
of networking, you too might share the limelight with the other celebrities and live
comfortably ever after. But the challenges of art are never solved through money
and status, and nor is there any prescription for making a masterpiece: if blind belief
and hard work do not guarantee a fair wage in the real world, then why should it turn
your artwork into a commercial success? Rather than trying to capitalise on your
insecurities by offering you the glib reassurance of the marketeers, these principles
are addressed to all you sick, broke, and talentless artists out there who know your
true potential, and still want to continue.

1) Don’t fetishize incompletenes

The poor artist will often relish the raw and unfinished in their own work and in
that of others as a means to avoid facing up to the limits of their own talent. It’s
much easier to see the promise of genius in your first drafts and sketches than it
is to make the finishing touches to what you know will be a substandard piece of
work. Abandoning your work at an early stage allows you to enjoy the thrill of being
an artist without having to subject your results to the harsh gaze of others, or even
your own better judgment. Leaving your work unfinished also means that you won’t
risk spoiling your chance achievements, and lends support to the idea that the great
work descends on the artist like a cosmic lottery ticket. But there’s no solution in
simple self-exposure: an artwork needs time to develop, and an artist needs internal
tension to create: sharing it too soon will just make you conform to expectations.
Where historically the measure of an artwork derived from its ability to function as a
complete representation of nature, the veneration of ‘the incomplete’ originates with
the philosophy of Friedrich Schlegel, who believed that artworks must ‘be entirely
isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog.’
Accepting our understanding of the world can only ever be partial relieves us of the
obligation to figure out universally valid judgments, and such a view finds its most
recent descendent in postmodern theory, where a high culture with fries approach to
art means that ironic allusions to great works of the past stand in for great works in
the present. Supposedly the triumph of the popular culture over modernist elitism, the
postmodern preserves its own strict hierarchy by kicking away the ladder to artistic
genius: nothing is worth learning systematically, anything goes, and only your genes
and luck can grant you artistic success. Consciously or not, those who share only their
promise with their peers maintain their privilege over the uninitiated.

2) You’ll always find time for inspiration; it’s making time for concentrated
hard work that’s difficult.

Surely the best trick for avoiding hard work is to imagine that you’re waiting for
artistic inspiration. While others work hard at improving their craft in the hope of
masking their inner poverty, you are secure enough in your own talents to wait
patiently for that great idea to fall from the sky. But when making art, inspiration
is rarely the problem: even a poor artist can be plagued by hundreds of wild ideas
for future work. The architect Louis Kahn would maintain that ‘a good idea which
isn’t done is no idea at all’, suggesting that an artwork cannot exist in the mind of an
artist alone, not even a poor one: it demands realization and an audience. And while
it’s true that you can ruin a good idea by rushing it to completion, you can never go
wrong by setting aside plenty of time for the concentrated hard work.

3) The tragedy of the working classes is only articulated by the middle classes:
don’t let them speak for you

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of reading a socialist newspaper, you can’t help
but be struck by how terrible life must be for the poor workers, condemned to lives
deprived of all those middle class essentials, like organic food and good taste, or
existing only as consumerist dupes, spiralling through shopping centres in a secular
version of Dante’s Hell. But who writes these papers? Behind the high principles
of your learned socialist can often reside an unhealthy interest in the workers best
described as voyeuristic. It’s as if the shame of their privilege is relieved by their
voluntary abasement before them. Never mind if such a view already presupposes
a low opinion of the workers in general. Thankfully, the poor artist is only political
insofar as their work is not concerned with the crude material interests of party
politics: ‘The artist is responsible to no-one but himself. He donates to centuries to
come only his own works; he stands surety for himself alone. He dies without issue.
He was his own king, his own priest and his own God.’ One has to be as generous in
spirit as Charles Baudelaire to absolve all the debts of the poor.

4) Better to be an honest dilettante than a fake artist

Is it possible to enjoy the great works of art without wanting to be a great artist?
When faced with a masterpiece a poor artist can feel compelled to state how their
own efforts have no relation to such grand works, a reaction which usually goes hand
in hand with the secret belief that their own works would be great if only they were
discovered, and then the sense of failure is compounded with a feeling of rejection.
This idea that the great artworks demand an equivalent effort from those who
appreciate them is like a secularised version of the Protestant work ethic: whereas
Original Sin was thought to be relieved through doing our duty to God by hard toil,
now the pleasure in consuming art must be repaid by making oneself worthy of the
great artists. The medieval peasants knew better: for them, the joy of work came not
from the back-breaking labour of the day, but from the drink and fornication of the

5) Better to be mad than mediocre

Madness is overrated. There’s nothing more pathetic than an artist who acts mad in
order to get noticed, and you can probably learn more about Van Gogh by drawing
birds’ nests than by drinking the Absinthe. Of course anyone can get drunk, but
putting time aside to accurately draw a birds’ nest requires a degree of commitment
which is beyond most people’s scope. Likewise, most of us have no comprehension of
what it means to suffer from a real mental disorder. The rare hallucinations and brief
moments of ecstasy which are supposedly the privilege of the mad are usually paid for
by prolonged periods of isolation, paranoia, and finally despair. Yet the conjunction
between art and madness is not simply a romantic cliché: the artist who settles for
convention is no artist at all. The duty to expand the limits of what’s conceivable
means that the artist must break the chains of good sense, and madness is what
happens to those who can’t find an adequate frame for their work or keep a straight
face in public. Perhaps it’s easier for us when our great artists suffer: only then does
their genius become tolerable. And don’t we secretly hope that our own sufferings
might also be rewarded with a great artwork?

6) Nothing in the artwork is accidental, even if it was put there by accident

There’s nothing wrong with trying to understand an artwork through learning
about the artist; but there is a problem if the artwork gets reduced to what that artist
intended. Critics who explain a work of art by referring to an artist’s life-story usually
do so as a means of silencing dissent, but the successful artwork communicates
directly without translation, and this goes against those who would seek to understand
an art work on purely formal grounds. Purely formal grounds for judging art simply
don’t exist: at best they are descriptive terms for deducing the compositional elements
in a work in order to launch a response; at worst, they are the means by which
academic learned taste tries to pass itself off as a politically neutral affair.

7) Colours are the flowers of the universe; leave some behind for the others

Can the lurid configurations of rubbish in a London gutter have as much vibrant
appeal as the paintings of Matisse or Kandinsky? Perhaps, but you must already
know their work before you can see their results in your own environment. Just as the
richness of colour is given to all regardless of social rank, so the poor artist creates
works which require no expensive mediation. As simple and as universal of colour,
the challenge of art is to tear through the web of our petty concerns, exposing the
mysterious of life which underlie our most trivial observations.

8) Everyone’s a critic, but there is no miserable creation

A poor artist suffers from terrific self-doubt when their own achievements fail to
live up to their higher ambitions. But they should take comfort in the fact that even
the greatest artists have also experienced this same self-doubt: they’re as vulnerable
to critique as the rest of us. To the uninitiated, all artworks seem effortless. And
consequently, enviable: regardless of whether their work is meant to communicate
great sadness or suffering, it’s difficult to believe that the great artists could have
ever been truly unhappy, given the creative powers which were at their disposal.
Their artwork stands as proof that whatever turmoil went into these creations was
in the last instance overcome. But the question remains as to whether this suffering
was intensified in the process of making the artwork itself, and whether this was a

price worth paying. At best we can be sure that these questions were not resolved in
advance, and sheer commitment is not enough to guarantee a better life or a place
in heaven. Perhaps the strength of an artist should be measured by their capacity to
withstand these great self-doubts and still carry on. ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll
go on’. Samuel Beckett’s ‘Unnameable’ leaves the poor artist with the only working

9) It’s easy to focus on your work when all around you falls to pieces, but why
sacrifice present happiness for the grand delusion?

It’s a truism that artistic inspiration for the great works has more often come in times
of great hardship rather than in those periods of insipid comfort. At first this might
seem counter-intuitive, isn’t it easier to be creative when you have the right conditions
for concentration? So why have artists often made their best works in times of
personal crisis? Making art is seldom an easy escape, but it could be that the challenge
of artistic creation has become easier to handle than their other more personal
difficulties. A better test of an artist’s commitment is not in their ability to work under
duress, but depends on whether they are willing to sacrifice personal happiness for
the ambivalent rewards of making art. There’s no straightforward solution to this
dilemma: it’s not about an all or nothing commitment. Even the greatest artists have
known when to stop. Arthur Rimbaud, the quintessential modern poet, would burn
out in his mid-twenties, renouncing literature entirely to settle for a life as a colonial
business entrepreneur, while Marcel Duchamp, originator of the ready-made, retires
from the artworld at the height of his fame to play chess for the remaining twenty-five
years of his life. Clearly, there’s something extraordinarily lucid in the way that these
artists knew when their work was finished, and their decision to abandon their lives as
established artists suggests that other ways of living can be equally valuable.

10) Constant production and accomplished technique makes a great craftsman;
empathy with the poor and inarticulate can make a great artwork.

There’s something oppressive in the way that certain artists desperately churn
out work after work in a vast range of accomplished styles and techniques for
everyone’s approval. It’s as if the artist gloats over the inarticulate through their
constant demonstrations of power. Although certainly a mark of great self discipline,
constant production also betrays a certain insecurity: the artist keeps making works
which anyone can recognise as accomplished, rather than risk their reputation by
doing something original which might seem clumsy or pretentious. But one can be
unpretentious to the point of stupidity, and ridiculing artistic experiments is just
another kind of artistic elitism. Only when you realise that the artworld can be just as
mean and parochial as any other, and that the artist has no privileged access to a world
beyond it, only then is there a chance for their work to generate true value.


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