Not everyone can practice

21 January 2022

“And if you must go to work tomorrow
Well, if I were you I wouldn’t bother
For there are brighter sides to life
And I should know because I’ve seen them
But not very often”
— The Smiths, Still Ill

My wife Brittney has been a musician and songwriter for a number of years. Last year she finally completed her first album (which incidentally is being released today). But no sooner had she crossed this creative milestone than the agony of promoting her music set in. After weeks spent learning the basics of Photoshop and video editing apps, and the optimum time to post on social media, not to mention discovering the hassle of uploading her music to the various streaming platforms, she soon felt all her creative energy drained. And she still had to assemble a band and stick to a rehearsal schedule while holding down a full-time job.

I’m not bringing this up to elicit sympathy. Every creative person know that promoting your work is a full-time job in itself. For many artists, their audience is perhaps their biggest asset. This means that, in the absence of someone else doing the marketing and promotional legwork for you, you’ll be spending a disproportionate amount of time growing your audience if you want your work to be noticed, regardless of the fact that this robs artists of precious time and energy to create something.

We’ve reached a stage where the dominant work culture (i.e., relentless hustling and flagrant self-promotion) has engulfed creative practice. What Mark Fisher called the “business ontology” of the free market is now the presumptive norm for any artist who hopes for some career success. As Brittney put it, art is meant be an escape from work life; not a repetition of it: the antithesis of functional value.

Again, this isn’t news to artists. But the unconscious assimilation of business practices into creative pursuits is also not enough — you can no longer simply “be” who you want to be, to “do” the thing you want to do. You must also “seem”, or “appear”: perform, pantomime your role as an artist. In the struggle to have your work noticed by anyone, you’re expected to exude endless positivity in the public sphere. A meritocratic society values productivity: we must always be seen as hard-working, even when it is largely performative, even when it takes precious time away from being creative.

Former ACME Studios building, South London. The building was sold and subsequently closed to artists at the end of December 2021.

It’s no surprise then that artists, and young graduates in particular, are finding it harder than ever to practice their art in this performative culture. In an essay titled ‘Fairer Universities are Possible’, Margherita Huntley described the conundrum faced by young graduates today:

“Institutional learning and its accreditation can be said to instil a sense of ‘cruel optimism’ within students… Graduating art and design students soon realise that the conditions for producing ideas (and the atmospheres within which they can grow) are poor. Studio space for non-commercial activities is non-existent, funding applications are lengthy and competitive, rents are expensive, commutes are long. In short, art school pedagogies extol the virtues of a design that not everyone can practice.”

For those of us, myself included, who are fortunate enough to spend a higher-than-average proportion of their time in the studio, there are still the endless work-like demands to contend with: to feign enthusiasm; to aggressively self-promote; to produce an endless stream of ‘content’ (i.e., not actual art, but a kind of meta-art); to engage with your audience continuously by way of follows, likes, and comments; to monetise your practice (because after all the time spent promoting what you do online, there’s not much time left for the full- or part-time job that pays the rent, and so you are faced with the apprehensive choice of commercialising your art to plug the funding gaps). Cities are also increasingly prohibitive spaces for artists because of high studio rents as well as the precarity caused by a lack of stable income or a guaranteed work space. This in spite of the fact that it is artists’ cultural contributions that make cities such desirable places to live.

What is missing is an alternative to the predominant culture, where being an artist is not just another form of marketing. At one point, we had the notion of the bohemian life, which rejected the idea of a prescribed societal function in favour of a life of contemplation. Having discarded the dominant assumptions about work, success, and social acceptance, artists were to a certain extent free to do as they pleased. The idea also provided comfort and solidarity among artists, particularly in times of poverty and joblessness. While the relationship between art and bohemia has been excessively romanticised, it still offered a degree of freedom from the quotidian. Since the bohemian ideal has, like every other subculture, been co-opted into the mainstream, it no longer exists as the great refusal, but rather only as passive “style”: to pose as nonconformist while acquiescing to the functional demands of the market.

As Morrissey complained in 1984, there are indeed brighter sides to life than going to work, but we don’t see them very often — even less so today.

Music I’ve been listening to lately:

  • Sun Kill Moon, Benji
  • Elliott Smith, Roman Candle

Books I’ve been reading:

  • Andrei Platonov, Soul and Other Stories

In other news, I’ll be taking part in a group exhibition, ‘Badlands’, at no format Gallery in Deptford. The show will also feature work by Emily Mary Barnett, Ollie Guyon, and Henry Tyrrell. It runs from Wednesday 2 March until Sunday 6 March (12-6pm) with a private view on Thursday 3 March (6-9pm).

'Badlands' exhibition poster