What makes art?
A listener posed this question to our tour guide as we stood looking at two art gallery walls covered with self-portraits of a bag lady, taken in various public photo booths.
And this was the question I pondered as I , with my two teenage children, looked round an exhibition of wonders at the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank last Saturday.
There, displayed for us in The Alternative Guide to the Universe, were the outpourings of unlicensed architects, off-beam physicists, self-taught artists, arcane code creators, numerologists and mystical theorizers; untrained farmer-inventors of automata and robots, constructors of imaginary buildings and cities from discarded packaging, and proponents of new theories to replace gravity and relativity.
We gazed at elaborate designs for a robot to roam the universe, and crack the mystery of life after death, with a complex scheme for a new language with which this robot would communicate these truths to the future inhabitants of planet earth.
We viewed images of exquisite dolls of children and young people which had been created by one man over 20 years, dressed in clothes he designed and made himself, then posed in numerous positions and photographed; and finally, packed away carefully, not to be seen again by anyone until after his death.
What makes art? I asked myself.
And answers immediately flooded in:
A long obedience in the same direction.
The creators of the works we saw were a direct inspiration and encouragement to me as a writer.
Some are long-term residents in psychiatric institutions, others are on the fringes of society, just inside the cusp of (apparent) normality.
And they are all remarkable, exceptional people.
And they all have this in common:
They are focussed, committed, and they direct all their energy into one project consistently, over a number of years which can range from one to three decades.
If you have this kind of commitment you too could in theory create exquisite things.
Your ideas might not ‘work’, but if you are creative in this life, and you leave a body of work behind you that is intriguing and beguiling and fills people with wonder and amazement and awe, you have added something of lasting value to this world. You may even have fulfilled your God-given purpose.