In this beautifully-made short film, the painter Bill Blaine laments his failure to become a “great” artist. His work is often brilliant, across a bewildering array of styles, but he’s not content. Working on a chiaroscuro portrait, he second-guesses himself – turban or no turban? how do I render the coat? – until impatiently relegating all these confounding details to the shadows. His work is figurative, abstract, classical, modernist, lavish, minimalist; he seems equally at home in all forms and thoroughly ill at ease in himself. “I suppose I never could land on anything I could stick with long enough to create something that was, you know, personal style”.
In the film’s opening scenes he contends that “great” artists are defined by their “obsession”. They get stuck on something like a dog with a bone. They don’t go to the beach with their grandchildren, and they yell at their families when invited. They sound, to me, unhappy. Blaine is unhappy that he hasn’t been more like them.
“Greatness” is such a damaging chimera. In its pursuit we make ourselves miserable, but what is it? And who decides? Insert your own sentence about Van Gogh here, or about the seventeenth-century view of Shakespeare, or about Poussin before Blunt’s rehabilitation, or after his unmasking. Or read this recent article about Leni Riefenstahl, whose “greatness” succeeded in unmooring her from her embeddedness in Nazism, until her embededdness in Nazism unmoored her from greatness. Greatness is historically contingent. So what is Blaine after?
I’m putting words in his mouth here, or thoughts in his head, but it seems to me that what he’s after, if not greatness, is unequivocal success. A huge hit exhibition, a million-dollar painting, a commission for the Guggenheim. A definitive endorsement that what he’s doing is worthwhile. But would that be enough? Or would someone remain unconvinced, would almost any artist then zero in on that one outlying critic rather than on the yay-sayers? I learned long ago that I can’t stop myself caring about what people think, but I can choose to focus on what’s useful to me about those thoughts. I might still be galled by what isn’t useful, but I don’t let it get in the way, and it passes.
Grayson Perry describes the process of self-discovery as an artist in terms of the bus routes in (iirc) Helsinki. For the first few stops from the central bus station all routes are travelled by many buses. As the journeys continue the routes bifurcate until finally yours is the only bus on this route. As a young artist, Perry says, it can be easy to feel you’re on the wrong bus. There are too many other people here, it all feels too familiar, too well-trodden. You jump off, you head back to the depot, you start again, and you never get anywhere new. Stay on the bus, says Perry. It’s the only way to discover anything. Stay on long enough and they’ll have to let you drive it.
I’ve always found the bus metaphor illustrative, and no-one’s a better example of it than Perry - who’d have thought acerbic pots would be such primetime? In my case, doing a series of modestly experimental solo storytelling shows, I thought of myself as sticking on the bus, doing my thing. But I also knew that this wasn't the whole truth, and nor is it for many of us. I made those shows because those were the shows available to me to make: that particular structure of feeling was a meeting place between my skills and desires, and the economics of the industry in which I work. Ten years ago I was on entirely different buses, directing political clown shows and contemporary new writing. And this year my bus has been mostly all-singing all-dancing family entertainment adapted from well-known fairy stories. And retrospectively, to me all these things feel, in ways I can’t always describe, part of the same project. The body of work might look confusing to you, but it makes sense to me.
Then a couple of weeks ago the always-inspiring Steve Lawson, in passing, said that he liked looking at his whole career as building up to the work he would make after the age of fifty or sixty. Everything before then is apprenticeship. Develop a range of approaches, styles, forms, genres, hell, even artforms. Ride a few buses. You don’t have to decide everything about your life and work by thirty-five, any more than your GCSE choices determine everything about your future career.
Bill Blaine is constantly bus-hopping, and what's more, he seems to get an impressive distance from the station: none of his works are anything other than highly accomplished. There’s an argument that Blaine is too good to be great, has too much easy facility to need to pursue something difficult. Does greatness inhere in struggle? I’m not sure about that either, but, it’s clearly true that Blaine hasn’t developed anything that’s distinctively his. His term for the work his facility produces is “surfacey”. I think it’s often more penetrative than that. What it isn’t is distinctive, and this is a pursuit with which I’m in sympathy. Not greatness, which requires some kind of extrinsic endorsement and is so contingent as to be basically meaningless. Distinctiveness. But even the way Blaine signs his paintings seems to him unsatisfactory, as though there ought to be a way of, Whitman-like, singing himself more clearly.
I feel a failed pursuit of distinctiveness much more keenly than a failed pursuit of greatness, and I wonder why. I’d like to say something about our capitalist individualistic culture, but my heart’s not really in it. Anarchism also celebrates individual difference. Communism desires individual flourishing. The argument that capitalism promotes the individual while the alternatives flatten it is an argument only made by capitalists. The problem with capitalism isn’t its celebration of the individual or the idiosyncratic, it’s what it does after. Capitalism fetishizes the pioneer, in order to commodify and constrain the territory of discovery. It turns distinctiveness into greatness, which is not a meaningful term, it’s just marketing. Capitalism insists you either stay on the bus long enough to make a discovery you can monetise, or (more common) jump off regularly when you spot one going somewhere more currently marketable. Neither of these attitudes is conducive to individual flourishing. Or, for that matter, to great work - whatever that means.
Blaine goes to the beach with his grandchildren. He has a beautiful home. He works when he wants to and he’s happy when he works, but he doesn’t feel he has to. Still, he feels guilt whenever he doesn’t, and he feels a failure for his want of greatness, and he wishes he were on every bus at once. His whole life, our whole lives, are prodigiously fat with fomo. That’s the problem with capitalism.
I write this sitting in the café at Manchester Art Gallery, where I’ve just visited the Derek Jarman retrospective. Painting, film, music video, memoir, activism, even gardening, Jarman was not constrained by a sense of which bus he was or was not on. He pursued the same idea across multiple forms simultaneously, rather than worrying whether or not the turban should be in the shadows, or what bus he was on, or whether he would achieve greatness, or whether he already had, or anything other than the enquiry posed by the work itself, and its relation to the world.
The following article was commissioned by Trowbridge Town Hall, in response to a residency there by me and Boff Whalley in June this year. It was published in the most recent edition of the Trowbridge Community Newspaper.
You should check out Trowbridge Town Hall. They're a brilliant organisation. Their upcoming Christmas show Miracle on 34 Seymour Street was made through a similar process to the one described below. I'd go.
Some things just won’t resist turning into metaphor.
We spent our first morning in Trowbridge clearing scum off a pond. The sensory garden out the back of the town hall is a peaceful oasis, at least on days when there isn’t a stonecutter at work twenty feet away. But the garden only stays beautiful thanks to the indefatigable efforts of a team of volunteers. In Trowbridge, such efforts are a theme.
Yet despite the beauty of the spot and the huge good will we were met with by the volunteers, pond scum just keeps insisting on becoming a metaphor. For reasons that entirely escape me, Trowbridge is not widely regarded as a great place to be, visit, or live. Even many of the people of Trowbridge to whom we spoke were at best mealy-mouthed about the place. So consistently is it done down that, as a visitor, you start looking for things that confirm this reputation, which begins to obscure the fact that this is an incredibly handsome town. You have to clear the scum of reputation in order to see the water clearly.
That same evening we visited an allotment run by Trowbridge Environmental Community Organisation (TECO). For weeks they’ve been planting radishes only to have them eaten by slugs. So they plant more radishes, and they’re eaten by slugs too. And so on. The persistence of the TECO team is Sisyphean, it’s heroic, and again it’s an irresistible metaphor for all for work done by volunteers across the town to keep clearing away the pond scum and make it beautiful. Mel Jacobs, whose community garden in the park filled with local plant varieties had just been substantially vandalised and who, with a heavy heart, set about starting again. The team brought together by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust with whom we spent a morning in galoshes picking rubbish from Paxcroft stream. Layla in the plastic-free shop, whose business exists because plastic – plenty of which we picked out of that stream – is choking the planet, but who hadn’t served a customer for two hours before we came in to talk to her. I bought a huge quantity of nuts, enough to last the whole week, but it didn’t cover two hours of costs. As we left another customer came in.
We were brought to Trowbridge by the good folk of the Town Hall, to meet people who give up their time to make Trowbridge a better place to live, who get their hands dirty in order to transform the environment, or to preserve it. It wasn’t just environmental issues, either. We spent a fascinating and enormously enjoyable evening with the change-ringers in the church tower, geeking out on the minutiae of peals. Like so many pursuits you’re aware of but haven’t ever tried, bell-ringing is a lot more complex than you think, a whole secret world of knowledge and skill. And now whenever I hear that beautiful sound ringing out across any town, I know a little bit more about the nature of the work the ringers are putting in to creating the space I’m moving through.
Even a semi-wild place like Biss Meadows hides an incredible amount of invisible work, which we were introduced to by Jenny Fowers when she took us on a tour. Like so many people we met, she was refreshingly un-NIMBYish, celebrating the graffiti under the bridge and offering support to a homeless man taking shelter there. Some people want their beauty spots to represent a kind of perfection that’s only possible if you exclude basically all people. And as soon as you start making decisions about which people are most desirable in your beauty spots, you start excluding the kinds of people – the young, the homeless, the too-loudly-enjoying-themselves – who might have most to gain from access to places like this. Another bit of reputational scum wiped away, there.
With Gill Cooper we did a circuit of Courtfield Orchard, which despite being a historic woodland with several rare or unique trees, is under threat of development. Because of that, we couldn’t actually go into the orchard, we could only peer through the fence. The security guard came over and I was braced for a confrontation. But she was incredibly lovely and supportive, and just as keen that the orchard – and the house – be restored to use for the people of the town. It meant a lot to Gill, to save this place – she was full of memories of drama rehearsals in the house, and more – but she’s not sentimental about it. Things, times, places, they all change. Let’s just make sure it’s for the better, eh?
The change about which people most complain in Trowbridge is not unique to Trowbridge, it’s a national one, perhaps international. The gradual desertification of the town centre is a problem everywhere you go, and everyone knows it’s because of Amazon and because out-of-town shopping centres have better parking. But no individual can hold back that tide. So people pass blame to local councils, but in many cases there’s little they can do to promote local upstarts in the face of global behemoths. Their budgets are so tight that it’s hardly surprising they struggle even to offer rate relief – and plenty of that rate relief would mostly benefit landlords who themselves aren’t local either.
But what are you going to do? All you can do. Open a plastic-free shop, a small art gallery, an independent café. The slugs will come and eat some of it, so you plant it again. Pick plastic out of the water. Ring bells. People who care are the only thing that ever made a difference in this world, and they’re making a difference in Trowbridge every day.
On a personal note (and this is the paragraph that I expect might get cut from this article), I found our week in Trowbridge incredibly moving and inspiring. It resolved me to get involved in some of the kinds of activity we saw in Trowbridge in my own home town. Like a lot of people I spend a lot of time complaining, and there’s a degree to which the art I make is an extension of that complaining. I’ve been quite politically active in the past but have found the energy required impossible to sustain under the daily pressure of life when the pace of change is so slow. But the radishes I planted in Trowbridge, they grew, and now I know that you can beat the slugs anywhere.
It’s not been on for a couple of months, but for whatever reason I’ve been thinking about Ted Lasso, the TV show whose success is just as heartwarming as the show itself. Ten or so years ago a TV show this relentlessly sincere just wouldn’t have got made. Everything had to be laced with cynicism and irony, especially comedy.
In a talk to a group of writers at Leeds Playhouse a few years ago, the wonderful Jo Clifford once said that awards are too often won by gloomy plays that confirm our worst fears about the world. Plays that uncynically, sincerely live in hope, that dare to dream, or even demand that the world might be changed, are usually dismissed as naïve. They don’t win things.
Shows that live and end in gloom confirm our fears. This is reassuring. Things are bleak, they’re inevitably bleak, there’s no point in trying to fight the bleakness. Five stars.
We have to risk naivete in order to effect change.
Of course I’m not saying that all you have to do to win awards is be miserable. But if you want to make a positive contribution, look clearly into the fact that you’re less likely to win awards. Think hard about why you’re really doing this. Do you want prizes? Or do you want to help people live well in the dark?
My award-winningest show, Going Viral, is also my gloomiest. There’s a lot I love about that show, but its downbeat ending I consider a capitulation. Would it still have won awards if it had ended in hope? I don’t know. But I’d prefer it that way.
Nor am I saying you can’t go to dark places. Hell, Ted Lasso does that. Sincerity, lack of cynicism, these aren’t in fact the same as naivete or sentimentality. Life is incredibly hard. The world is a bleak and oppressive place. But if we’re going to dig into these things, let’s come back to the surface with hope or tools for change.
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: