I just finished reading The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. It is part rockstar/performance artist-memoir, part self-help book. If you have never heard of Amanda Palmer she is a controversial figure, both loved and loathed in equal measure. If you read The Daily Mail, you may know her as a blob-rockin’ nip-slippin’ hairy-legged abomination of the female form. She drew condemnation from the music industry by funding her album with the first ever million dollar Kickstarter campaign (thus having no label involvement at all), but then asking for volunteer musicians to play with her and her band while on tour. She is a social-media pioneer, whose army of Twitter followers help her write the lyrics for her songs, attend her hastily arranged ninja-gigs and even source machetes for her early morning photo-shoots on the beach. But above all else, Amanda Palmer is an artist. Her book is about art and artists, and what it means to be an artist, and how to survive in the world as an artist. Her conclusion? Take the donut*.
The book got me thinking about my own writing. Do I consider my writing art? Am I an artist?
I don’t want to write the next great literary masterpiece, brimming with philosophical musings and insight on the human condition. I don’t want to win the Booker Prize. I just have stories in my head that I think are cool, and I want other people to think they are cool too. I see myself as an entertainer (hopefully), not an artist.
To me, the definition of art is that it should provoke an emotional response. This is why I don’t understand people who argue against modern art, saying ‘why don’t they just paint proper pictures?’. Art isn’t about the medium, it’s about stirring deep regions of the soul. You don’t need paint to do this. On the flip-side, entertainment is a distraction, keeping at bay those same murky dreams and fears that art seeks to bring into the light.
Sometimes art can be a distraction, and sometimes entertainment provokes feelings. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. A well-crafted pop song can be as moving as a painting by Turner. A diamond encrusted skull by Damien Hirst can provide a glittery distraction every bit as shallow as The Only Way is Essex. Yet it is still art, just as the pop-song is still three-minutes of verse/chorus/verse.
Or to put it another way.
I recently re-watched the Asif Kapadia documentary Amy. No figure in modern pop-culture embodies the entertainer/artist dichotomy better than Amy Winehouse. While I don’t subscribe to the ‘tortured genius’ school of thinking, there is no denying that she was an artistic soul perhaps too fragile for fame. I would suggest that artists brains do work in a different way to most people’s. They create the art, they join the dots, they make the connections that your brain doesn’t. They feel things deeper. They see colours brighter. They hear the rhythm in the everyday. They take what is inside them, the unsayable, the unknowable, the unthinkable and make us understand it in new ways. That’s why they’re artists and you’re not.
Or maybe you are. I don’t know.
So in that way, I guess all writers are artists, making the connections, creating new pathways and new visions of the world. Including me.
Apart from E.L. James. That’s some connections the world really could have done without.
*I won’t explain any further. Read the book. It’s really very good, even if you have never heard of her and especially if you think you hate her.