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.
Running with an idea
Running commentary on: