Issue 28: Hidden Costs
What art takes
The other night I was at a party, being talked at by an artist. This artist recounted, with the kind of gravity normally reserved for describing the invention of Cubism or the discovery of nuclear fission—she even used the phrase “as you know,” which I didn’t—that she had given up painting on canvas some years ago in order to make experimental film, because painting is bourgeois and panders to wealthy collectors. The oppressed of the world must be grateful, I thought. It was an old tune, one which usually makes me count how many broke painters I know. This time it struck me as funny, since making films generally costs more to do than making paintings, unless grinding pigment from lapis lazuli is your thing. Still, what better way to stick it to the ruling classes than to spend money?
(While it’s true you can make low-budget video alone with a laptop using only clips ripped from YouTube and green-screen of your cat, someone, or something, is paying for your software, internet, and cat food, and it’s not the cat.)
I should’ve told her about a summer job I had as an art student. A famous chef opened an upscale bistro in the city. They advertised for an artist with life-drawing skills to sit in the restaurant every Wednesday afternoon, when they served a traditional English cream tea, and to draw their patrons. I phoned the number on the ad. Big drawings, they wanted. Atmospheric, full of life. Think bohemian Paris. Arty. But not too arty. To help create their dream of Impressionist Montmartre they offered twenty quid an hour, cash-in-hand, and free coffee—from the espresso machine, no less—which wasn’t bad for 1995. I took a portfolio of drawings along to the bistro. The manager thought they were arty but, you know, not too arty, and gave me the job.
A number of problems immediately arose. The first was that they would sit me at a tiny table covered with a crisp white tablecloth, silverware, water carafe and flowers. This didn’t leave much space for working with large-size paper and drawing materials. The maître’d, who thought my job was absurd and made me the target of his irritation, insisted that the table furniture had to stay. After the first week I was told I had to use tidier materials, because I’d grottied the tablecloth with charcoal and pencil dust. The charcoal was, admittedly, a rookie mistake, but it was hard to think of anything tidier than pencil. Breathing would have been too messy for them.
The other, bigger, issue was that the restaurant wanted the customers to see the drawings I had made of them but the customers didn’t want to be drawn. At first I would ask diners if I could sketch them. I would get a “no thank you”—the English “fuck off” when delivered tersely enough—and the dismissive wave often given to caricaturists trying to scrape a living on the steps of major museums. So I tried making the drawing first, then showing it to the customer when it was finished. People didn’t like being stared at during their cream teas. Patrons would complain to the maître’d. Ironically this made him more pleasant towards me because he enjoyed feeling vindicated. Customers would cross the room themselves to ask me to stop. I remember feeling grateful when one nice couple merely said “it’s not our sort of thing.” After a month I was told not to come back. I had made a mess and cost the bistro customers. New Montmartre could not be built. I should note that, in my studies at the time, I had stopped painting in order to make experimental Super 8 films. To épater les bourgeoisie, drawing them eating cake turned out to be the more deadly instrument of class war than lyrical celluloid poems.
These days I have a job in what Simon Kuper, in the Financial Times last week, described as “the world’s worst business.” * I can think of a few lines of work worse than writing. But in a modest way he’s not wrong. Hollywood writers, now into the third month of their strike, would probably agree.
It costs to get a formal education in art, in literature, acting, whatever your field might be. It costs to make art, and to plug into your discipline’s professional social circuits. This, on top of everything else in life; housing, food, health, family. Even if money’s no question, everyone pays with their bodies, with energy, emotion, and time. How artists get by interests me. Deborah Levy, in The Cost of Living, the second volume of her memoir trilogy, writes: “When I was around fifty and my life was supposed to be slowing down, becoming more stable and predictable, life became faster, unstable, unpredictable.” Her marriage had fallen apart, and she was unsure how to continue as a writer. “To unfold any number of ideas through all the dimensions of time is the great adventure of the writing life. But I had nowhere to write.” A friend offered Levy a garden shed in which to work. She got herself an electric bicycle. Then her mother died and pain at her separation doubled into grief for the death of her parent. (“Sorrow does not have a century,” she writes.)
Many artist memoirs follow standard blueprints. An amusing anecdote leads to a chance meeting with a powerful industry figure; a sad loss inspires a new burst of creativity. What is striking about The Cost of Living is the degree to which Levy builds her memoir from minor key episodes. She writes of her relationship and of her mother’s death, but it’s the moments which on face value seem fugitive, absent of biographical plot, Levy mines for consolation and direction. The book is crisp with small details: enjoying a pom-pom keyring, watching a colony of feral parrots, getting soaked in the rain. The account of a conversation with strangers on a train, of her childhood memory of moving from South Africa to England. The book doesn’t stop at major career stations—a significant literary breakthrough, say, or winning a prize—markers which might be used to pace out a conventional writer’s autobiography. Instead she catalogues the ordinary events that art draws from. These are more valuable creative resources to the writer than medals or praise. “The writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living.”
In 1992 the writer Iain Sinclair and director Chris Petit (Radio On, author of the remarkable, frightening novel Robinson) made The Cardinal & The Corpse. It was the first in an esoteric trilogy of films for British TV’s Channel Four. A couple of loose threads provide the filmmakers with alibis to interview writers, criminals and rare book dealers. They track the rumour that Brian O’Nolan, who wrote as Flann O’Brien, also produced penny-dreadful detective stories under the pseudonym Steven Blakesley. In a miniature fantasy they imagine a search for a rare grimoire that will unlock London’s occult secrets. The film’s subjects are mostly men, mostly figures who populate Sinclair’s writings. Hidden connections are insinuated between them all.
There is, for example, the once-notorious book hunter Driffield, who shrouded himself in sulphurous rumours about his identity and whereabouts. In his 1991 book, Drif’s Guide to the Secondhand & Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain—excoriating reviews of used bookshops the length-and-breadth of the UK—Driffield wrote that Raymond Carver’s death had been faked and that the author was now working as his personal chauffeur. In the 2010s, Driffield was charged, then acquitted, for indecent assault. According to Wikipedia he died this year, but who knows the truth. The film provides rare glimpses of the author and human rights campaigner Emanuel Litvinoff, and of David Seabrook, author of the unsettling Kentish travelogue All The Devils Are Here (2002). The avuncular science fiction writer Michael Moorcock admits to the pleasures of autographing books written by other people. Tony Lambrianou—malevolent behind a cracked mask of politeness—recounts working for the Kray Twins. (London gangster fetishism, all that hollow “but-they-loved-their-mum” exculpatory sentimentalism, is something I’ll never understand.) Brian Catling, John Latham and Aaron Williamson are cast as the artist keepers of the grimoire, hunted in the film by Alan Moore, who was at the time part-way into writing his Jack the Ripper serial, From Hell.
Then there is Derek Raymond, pen-name of Robin Cook, an old Etonian who rejected establishment respectability in the 1950s for the seedy London demi-monde. In 1962 Cook borrowed from experience for his debut, The Crust On Its Uppers, an auto-satirical novel about a young toff who joins London’s criminal underworld. With family to support he wrote pornography, he made a stab at dystopian science fiction with A State of Denmark, he waited tables, drove cabs, slaughtered pigs, smuggled paintings, and laundered money. In the 1980s, after a decade spent away from the typewriter, dodging trouble and working as a labourer on a vineyard, he adopted the name Derek Raymond for a series of brutal noirs including He Died With His Eyes Open (1984) and the horrific I Was Dora Suarez (1990).
The Cardinal & The Corpse finds Raymond in an East End boozer. You can practically smell the thick, beer-and-cigs fug through the screen. He is dressed in blouson leather jacket and black beret and his complexion is the same yellow-brown as the pub. Raymond speaks with a refined, RP accent that has been scratched and dinged at the corners, and he has the obliging cheer of a raconteur whose drinks are paid for. His stories are entertaining, tales from another world. But what, exactly, are we watching here? Shadows pass across his face. A smile and a chuckle disguise darker notes in his voice, hints that both his art and his anecdotes came at a cost too bleak to put words to. Payments requiring more than a few drinks in an out-of-the-way boozer to bleach out the memory. Raymond died just two years after The Cardinal & The Corpse was broadcast. Like others in the film, he lived in literature’s margins. (Don’t we all, one way or another.) They don’t run creative writing MFAs there. They don’t award prizes. It’s no place for romance.
Perhaps some artists worry they may be killed by the art they devoted their lives to, like poor Leonard Bast in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, the auto-didact crushed beneath a falling bookcase, punished for having ideas above his class. All art costs something. Samuel Beckett wrote of his “dream of an art unresentful of its insuperable indigence and too proud for the farce of giving and receiving.” Perhaps he had spotted the economics baked into the vocabulary of creativity. “Spending” time in the studio, talk of “what it takes” to make something, which fills the mind with the love and dread of It, the insatiable monster of the page and the studio. Prudent or generous words such as “saving” or “giving” are second tier terms. They can even mean the same thing as “spending,” as in “giving everything” to a performance, as in “putting everything into” a book, acts of sacrifice to a process or spiritual prostration in front of an audience.
In 1950 the psychoanalyst Marion Milner published On Not Being Able to Paint, the result of an experiment she had conducted on herself using a method of ‘free drawing’ to examine the mind’s creative process. Milner claimed she had only basic drawing abilities, and that she had long wished that she could paint. Her research into child development led her to become curious about her own amateurism. She wanted to know more about the frustration she had felt at not having developed the creative skills she wanted. Among other things, the experiment led her to make the observation that artists often carry the sense that they own their subject, “spiritually enveloping” it with their imaginations. Even for the most egalitarian-minded artist, art always, even subconsciously, involves a degree of symbolic acquisitiveness. It’s reflected in the way we use words such as “possess” to talk about artworks—how something “possesses” meaning or a quality—and how audiences, especially fan subcultures, can feel a sense of ownership over the work they enjoy.
After losing the cream tea life-drawing gig, I got a job waiting tables at a cafe across the street. I was often put on the early morning shift, where I became friends with Anthony, a man who loved playing old reggae soundsystem tapes at ear-splitting volume as we put out the chairs and heated up the coffee machine. (Saxon Studio soundsystem was his favourite. It was a good way to psych up for six hours of slopping cappuccinos.) Anthony had been in the corps de ballet of a major dance company and injured his back, putting him out of work while he convalesced. When I met him he hadn’t danced for over a year. He moved away, I left the cafe, we lost touch. To this day I occasionally wonder if he danced again.
Art extracts a price from artists’ bodies, especially actors, dancers and musicians. Repetitive strain injury, for instance, is one of the most common conditions among professional musicians, and can knock a performer out of work for long stretches of time, even cause them to learn a new instrument. The sculptor Mike Nelson, now in his fifties, has been making enormous installation works since the 1990s. I first met him in 2000, when he built the work alone or with just a small crew. Speaking to Nelson last summer, as I worked on a catalogue essay for his Hayward Gallery exhibition ‘Extinction Beckons’, he told me how, nowadays, he feels the strain on his body. He remarked in a recent interview with Sean Burns that “few people would have chosen a way of working like this because the physicality of it is quite brutal.” It could be worse. One of the biggest influences on Nelson has been the work of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. After shooting some of the most eerie and indelible images for his 1979 film Stalker by the toxic Jägala River in Estonia, downstream from a chemical plant, a number of Tarkovsky’s crew fell sick. The film’s sound recordist, Vladimir Sharun, linked the later deaths from cancer of Tarkovsky, his wife Larissa Tarkovskaya, and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn directly to the Stalker shoot.
Noble and courageous artists have sacrificed their freedom, their lives, on account of their work. But artists can cause self-inflicted injuries, paying the cost for their grudges and vanities. Truman Capote famously ostracized himself with the story ‘La Côte Basque 1965,’ published in Esquire in 1975, in which he aired New York high society gossip that had been entrusted to him by some of the city’s most powerful women. The author Mary McCarthy alienated classmates from her Vassar College days by using their lives as material for her 1963 novel The Group. In 1979, McCarthy was interviewed on The Dick Cavett Show, where she declared that writer Lillian Hellman was overrated: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” They had never been friends. The two writers differed fundamentally in their left-wing political positions. McCarthy had been a Trotskyist and wrote for the Partisan Review, Hellman an unrepentant Stalinist who wrote for Broadway. Hellman happened to see the interview on TV that night and immediately filed a $2.5 million dollar libel suit against McCarthy. Incidentally, Hellman was romantically involved with the crime writer Dashiell Hammett for some thirty years. Following the success of his hardboiled 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, Hammett had told his agent that he wanted to write a modernist, stream-of-consciousness detective story. Then Hollywood called, and his plans for a formalist novel were shelved. The success of one art cost him the opportunity to make another.
The members of Pink Floyd kicked their friend co-founder Syd Barrett from the band in 1967. It was the toll they felt they had to pay in order for the group’s career to progress. Barrett had been the band’s creative engine, the one who pushed their sound into new territory. But he had been showing signs of mental health problems and his behaviour was becoming erratic. Rather than dealing with the emotional difficulties of the situation head-on, the band simply stopped picking their friend up for gigs. It was up to Barrett to work out for himself that he’d been dumped. Pink Floyd’s star continued to rise. They signed with new management and a bigger label. Barrett’s health continued to deteriorate. In the early 1970s, after making two solo records, he dropped out of the public eye, and for some years he moved between London and Cambridge, where his mother lived, and where he had grown up. He eventually settled in Cambridge and reverted to his given name of Roger. For some thirty years he lived a quiet life, shunning the outside world, hiding from doorstepping journalists and curious fans trying to catch sight of crazy Syd. In Have You Got It Yet?, a new documentary on Barrett by Roddy Bogawa and Storm Thorgerson, the word that stumps the surviving members of Pink Floyd, when asked about the way they treated Barrett, is “guilt.” According to Rob Chapman’s biography, Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head, a friend had said to the singer, “But you really opened doors for the Floyd.” “Yeah, with cheap keys,” was his reply.
Barrett had given up a promising career as a painter to pursue music. (He studied at Camberwell School of Art with Maggi Hambling, who remembers him as a talented colourist.) In his later years he returned to painting. I can only guess, but I imagine that painting, for Barrett, was not a bourgeois indulgence, it wasn’t a political position. It gave him solace, perhaps a form of truth, payback for what art had cost him.
* Thank you for sticking with Keep All Your Friends. I took a month off from the newsletter in order to work through a few writing-for-hire deadlines. I write in order to make time to write, a situation which I sometimes feel has the kind of absurd circularity that Lewis Carroll might appreciate.
—I love this 1960 Joe Meek track at the moment. Somehow haunting and hopeful at the same time. Sounds as if it were recorded in the bathroom, which it probably was.
—It will take me the rest of my years to work through The New York Review of Books backlist. Coming in August are Diana Athill’s memoir Instead of a Letter (with an afterword by Lena Dunham) and her Bildungsroman Don’t Look at Me Like That (afterword by Helen Oyeyemi). October sees Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Boys Alive, from 1955, translated by Tim Parks, and his 1968 novel Theorem, translated by Stuart Hood. I am sure you’ve seen Pasolini’s film version of Theorem—Terence Stamp plays the mysterious visitor to a wealthy Milanese home, turning family life upside-down by sleeping in turn with each member of the household—but give yourself a treat if you haven’t.
—A few weeks ago I attended The Fifth Place, an irregular, clandestine event organized by artist and performer Michael Portnoy, described as “a room with new rules.” I was given little information in advance, just the address of a midtown hotel, directions to meet in a specific area of the lobby at a given time, and instructions of what to do if hotel security tried to eject us. I was told to dress smartly, and provided with an identity for the night. I was designated the Director of Terms, working for a company called Occlusion, and my job was to generate new jargon to describe all my interactions that night, like a New York Times trend piece on steroids. I had some idea of what to expect—I make a regular radio show for NTS with Portnoy, we once co-wrote a play about a chat show host gripped with conspiratorial paranoia, and his recent short, Progressive Touch, is one of the funniest films about sex I’ve seen—but it didn’t prepare me for the hilarious mental workout The Fifth Place gave me. And all for the price of a subway ticket. You can sign up here to be notified of forthcoming convocations.
—Finally this week, I am also infatuated with this song by Essential Logic, the band formed in 1978 by the saxophonist and singer Lora Logic, a founding member of the group X-Ray Spex. Hypnotic, dreamy, assertive.