Letter from London: Stay Firmly in Your Path and Dare

An important sideline to the artist’s daily journey to what is presently a large black and pearlised soft pink and silver ink painting on the wall of her studio is mentoring. Some of her previous mentees are so pleased to have had her as mentor, they not only keep in touch, they continue to seek advice as well. This she gives freely, because she is that type of person. However, it does bring home the fact that there are many creative people out here in the UK perilously close to some kind of artistic dystrophy. Some are being brave about it, some are in pieces, while others just give up. Being an artist is like living on the edge anyway and artists often unfairly have to defend themselves from accusations of having it all too easy. This must be so infuriating for them. For many creative people, creative work is an utter necessity. Some cannot perceive of their life without it. It is existential, therefore, to use a word these days released again from what was the long grip of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. For a true artist, it is a condition of existence.

Traditionally, the arts in this country have been well supported. This has always been one of the reasons for the rich vibrancy and bounce to our habits and mores. Now that much of this support is dwindling, or disappearing altogether, some of it now even replaced in advance by a greater demand in schools for more science and less art, I fear that genuinely gifted people are falling by the wayside — people already gnawed to the bone by their lack of self-esteem and general sense of self-worth. I noted one teacher last week say that he was joining the latest teacher strikes after what he called ‘the last straw’ of his primary school losing their art teacher. It is not just in schools, either. The government now wants universities to decrease arts and humanities funding in order to teach what they deem commercially more advantageous courses. What is most frustrating is that this is a provenly counter-productive act and one which goes well against the grain of what people know. The arts are widely known to develop emotional intelligence. They stretch people. Steve Jobs would always hire an artist or musician who was into technology rather than a computer freak. The arts develop the whole being — mind, body and soul. Some folk who struggle with more mainstream subjects, as well as true high achievers interestingly enough, have said they don’t know what they would have done without an arts education. The present government also now want mathematics to be taught until 18. The artist of this piece has no qualifications in this subject whatsoever. She never understood it and couldn’t get to grips with it on any level, no matter how hard she tried. What kind of hell would her years to the age of 18 have been? Even the financial sector admits creative people make good financiers. Entrepreneurship, after all, is a creative mindset. At the end of the day, art is not a soft option.

This climate we have today of deliberate cultural wipeout is very sad indeed. Even some of the major galleries and museums seem quieter when I visit, as if bitten already by a mysterious anti-arts bug as well as by a hangover from the pandemic. In fact, so intense is the strain on some of the artists who are mentored by the artist, she feels like a therapist at times. And yet, art is therapy, the artist insists. Every day during the pandemic she did a single small piece and it helped carry her through what for everyone was a frankly uncertain time. Luckily for her mentees, both former and present, there is no such thing to the artist as a person one cannot help. But it is not easy for her. Thankfully, she carries a clear understanding of what art is, which she freely puts down in part to a stringent education at one of the country’s best art schools. Aristotle said that art completes what nature cannot bring to a finish: ‘The artist gives us knowledge of nature’s unrealised ends,’ he said. Or, as Gertrude Stein put it, ‘art isn’t everything. It’s just about everything.’

Which is why I want this week’s Letter to be read as coming primarily from the artist, even if told through me: a kind of open door to ever-developing perceptions. Everyone’s week runs deep. Last week saw the artist meet up with two friends, one a poet, the other an artist, and the artist friend saying to the table that her husband of 30 years standing, sitting and lying down was leaving. No real warning, few signs, though things were starting to go wrong, just what felt like a sudden and sweeping declaration. Naturally, the support given to this friend was immediate, and I can still detect from afar much continued rallying around. I don’t know this person myself but do innately feel for her. This woman’s work is brave and direct, and she is one of the artist’s favourite artists. I am lucky that among my male friends we are able to discuss feelings but I do know that most men have little idea of how much more helpful women can be with each other when it comes toothier daily dealing with feelings and circumstance, as well as their often greater facility to tap into some kind of over-arching and much broader helpfulness. Their world feels so much more magnanimous than ours.

On a typical day, as reported before, the artist will walk with me to the river and back. Or she will go for a run across the heath, or indeed for a swim. A few days a week she might travel into the centre of the capital. Last week for example she dropped off some smaller works with the American gallerist with whom she has on occasion been joining forces. When her working day begins in earnest, she disappears inside her studio as if gobbled up by some giant whale of creativity. The door to the studio is heavy, as if denoting a kind of keep-out gravity to the sanctuary within. This could not be further from the truth. The artist’s studio is a welcoming place. It is a place that we all enter with pleasure, a realm of great and unfaltering concentration but with ever-changing art on the wall. Fortunately for those of us on the outside looking in, music is usually playing too. With every opening of the door last week came blasts of Rosalia, Kendrick Lamar, Tame Impala, Caroline Polachek, Rina Sawayama, Lorde, Arca, Beverly Glenn-Copeland (especially the song ‘La Vita’), Charles Gounod (‘Messe Solonnelle de Sainte Cecile,’ as recommended by the artist’s father), and Julianna Barwick. The artist says she finds playing music while working all about its energy as much as its imagination.

‘There is no art world. There is an art island,’ a stranger tweeted last week. If it is an island, it is one towards which women artists are expected to swim far harder than men. When Artnet published its findings based on data trawled between 2008 and 2018, a puny 11 per cent of art purchased in the US by top-drawer public museums destined for their collections was by women. Nor is there evidence of an improvement on this. The gender gap is even larger when it comes to the higher prices that art can go for in the UK. 68% of top artists showing in London’s best galleries are men. This is why the art world, or island, is so exclusive and fickle, once you actually get there. This is why an artist first and foremost must do what they do for themselves and not for anyone else. The artist has fresh experience of this from the last major London gallery to have represented her. The top artists at this gallery were almost entirely men. As a business, they went on to open up galleries also in New York and Berlin while the artist was with them. The owner in fact was a great champion of the artist’s work but still she had to fight hard for her exhibition. I also remember her fingers being literally raw by the time she reached her target of eight large and intricate new works.

The last time I saw her former gallery in any kind of formal context was in a well known fish restaurant in central London. They had hired a substantial and elegant room with several large round tables for what was a formal and no doubt highly expensive dinner. One male employee from the gallery wandered the room carrying around two large high-priced shopping bags as if comforted by the consumerist kudos within. They had all caught Ubers to travel the hundred meters or so from the gallery to the restaurant. I could tell the whole operation was doomed. Not even the famous 1% have it that good all the time. Out of the thirty or so well heeled guests attending, admittedly with one or two collectors thrown in among the many privileged staff, there were only four artists. At least the artist was sat next to a man who ran a public museum in which she had shown, so they were able at least to discuss that. ‘Rural panic’ was how one broadsheet described the work in that show, a phrase the artist enjoyed. At the time she had been making work in London based on images hunted or created in North Wales, often in the foothills of Snowdonia, and always with the inclusion somewhere of an elaborately rendered daughter, or son, or both. Anyway, her gallery went bust.

An old friend asked the other day if the artist would meet with the daughter of a friend of theirs who was in her final year at art school, in fact the same art school the artist attended. When they met up, the artist told her she should never to be afraid to ask for help. ‘Your art is your business,’ she said. Another problem with a lot of people studying art these days is that the majority are reportedly well off, further perpetuating this misleading sense of entitlement or luxury. When the artist went to art school, everyone was a recipient equally of a government grant. This was before the politicians often with degrees pulled up the ladder behind them. It is a pricey business studying art. Sometimes it feels as though a macabre and deliberate point is being made here, and it is impossible not to think the country could have benefited greatly from the more than £30bn of taxpayers’ money estimated to have been squandered during the pandemic. (Much could have gone on the NHS too.) This was money squandered on what were called Bounce Back Loans — that won’t ever bounce back — and crazily priced and highly dodgy personal protective equipment (PPE). Not to mention the many scams committed on government schemes created ironically to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic. I believe Rishi Sunak was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time.

I was in the park the other day with the artist. We were remembering with a light breeze in our faces the works done by her there of our daughter before our son was born, and how this work conceptually evolved into a sympathetic but unsentimental exhibition at a gallery in Milan. This was at the time of a new alliance in Italy between Berlusconi, the Northern League, and the new National Alliance. The atmosphere was tense in the country but the gallery lovely. For the opening, they put us up generously in an elegant hotel close to the main railway station. It was the first time the artist had been away from our daughter since she was born. At one point in the middle of our first night there, the artist awoke in a state of great agitation. Where was our daughter? She wanted to know where our daughter was? She had lost her. Wake up, she shook me. I leapt out of bed and straight away we were both looking under the bed, by the TV, in the wardrobe. Wait a moment, she said. What are we doing? She was with the artist’s parents. Our daughter was not with us at all. She wasn’t even in the same country. We looked at each other and burst out laughing.

Finally, I met up with someone I used to work with whenever our two digital film teams came together over the closing stages of one or two important feature films. It was fantastic to see him again. He was doing really well for himself and was brimming with fresh ideas, at the same time as showing his usual rather fetching humility. His partner — and the mother of his two children — had until recently been working in education. I could relate to the way he spoke of her. She was gutted by the situation in schools today, he said, and he was being so supportive and respectful of her. It made me suspect I have not always been the greatest partner in the world to the artist, having spent either too much time abroad or in a kind of headspace that may as well have been abroad. However, I do like to think I have never diverged from the point that I am, more than anything, with an artist. This fact is what I signed up for, so to say. And, as I have said before, one of the most important things about an artist is their ongoing ungovernability.

Back to the large ink painting on the wall. Even as a work-in-progress, it is both powerful and intimidating. ‘Art is a revolt against fate,’ said Andre Malraux. I can live with that.

Peter Bach lives in London.