What we can learn from an artist’s work


Works of art participate in our lives; we are not just distant observers of their lives. They are in conversation among themselves and with us. This is a part of the description of human life; we do the way we do partly because of things that have been said to us by works of art, and because of things that we have said in reply.

This is the beginning of an essay called Style and Grace in a collection by Wendell Berry, who goes on to describe the conversations he has had with Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and Norman MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It”. Reading this just after finishing my previous post about the relationships we have with other people’s work and their ideas, it struck me that “conversations” of the kind that change and shape us require lots of time. With so much information available online, so much to distract, it’s not always easy to engage with a work of art, to really go into the depths of a book like Berry does with MacLean’s, a book which, he concludes, is the product of

a used, rather than exhibited, art, one that ultimately subjects itself to its subject. It is an art not like that of the bullfighter, which is public, all to be observed, but instead is modest, solitary, somewhat secretive – used, like fishing, to catch what cannot be seen.

Both Ali Smith’s Artful and Patti Smith’s M Train engage with loss while conversing with artists and their work, while conveying the transformation that results from the weaving back and forth between past and present. Both books challenged me to live well, to live thoughtfully and deeply, and also encouraged me by ending with the sense that their journeys are not over yet. At the weekend I also read Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers and was touched by the fact that there was no arrival at the place of untainted happiness, it was to a kind of peace, healing and acceptance, of boys brought up as well as they could be without a mother and no second marriage. Features and some books about recovering from grief don’t allow space to think of life in terms of an ongoing journey, or even to consider what you want or can expect from life after experiencing such devastation. Triumphant narratives, the ones that suggest an ultimately happy ending, don’t or can’t do justice to the agonising journey in between, to the dark times and desperate lows, the mesmerising misery of the days when all you can do is trudge forwards. But what they also don’t often convey is the strange alchemy that can happen when you are in that kind of darkness, the things that are more difficult to detect because they come like a sudden opening in the clouds, a whisper that you can keep going as you walk across the park to sit in a cafe and work, the smallest swelling of courage that comes from knowing that today, at least you did show up.

When you are there, amid all the agony and incompleteness, the lack of hope in anything other than just showing up for another day, it’s good to read and find you find you are not alone, that this place of struggle is one where other people dwell. A piece on Brain Pickings about Leonard Cohen’s approach to song writing spoke to me as I’m struggling to find my way in my work again. While there are many questions it raises about what I actually do, I was encouraged by what he said about the need to keep working for the work’s sake, and about the young poets he first worked with who shaped his approach to his work.

We had in our minds the examples of poets who continued to work their whole lives. There was never any sense of a raid on the marketplace, that you should come up with a hit and get out. That kind of sensibility simply did not take root in my mind until very recently…

So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.

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