Artists Are Self-Absorbed
And my theory about professional artists was as follows: artists are not necessarily the most creative or inspired individuals in any given community. Instead they were those individuals most willing to exploit their own creativity and inspiration, most willing to gain personal profit from their unconscious and its emanations, those with the most missionary zeal for the dissemination of their own idiosyncratic perspectives. Questions of pure creativity clearly lay elsewhere.
Like most of us I once knew someone who was one of the most creative, strange, deeply interesting people I would ever meet. I'm not sure he actually liked me very much but I admired him and therefore he humoured me. Before beginning this book I emailed him to ask if it would be all right for me to write about him and also to write about some of the things he has said to me over the years. He said no, that it was not all right. I then asked if it would be all right to write about him if I were to avoid any mention of his real name. Once again he said no, he would not be comfortable with such a situation. I then asked if it were all right to write about him if I were to avoid using his real name and also alter key details of his story so as to render it virtually unrecognizable. Once again he said no, and also mentioned that he hoped I would not come to him with any further requests. He was easily one of the most creative people I have ever met, his thoughts and work far more compelling than that of most of the other, allegedly more professional, artists I have encountered over the years. I am tempted to explain more about him in what follows, which would of course be absolutely contrary to his clearly stated wishes. However, then I would not only be exploiting my own creativity, I would also be exploiting his. And he has clearly told me not to. Sadly, the theory I proposed in the first paragraph will have to remain unillustrated.
Sometimes when I run out of ideas I attempt to write down my dreams. In one dream, which has visited me sporadically over the course of many years, often arriving on nights when I least expect it, or on nights when I had completely forgotten I had ever had such a dream in the first place, there was a secret society the existence of which only circulated in the vaguest of rumours. Of course immediately I wanted to join. This desire to join was so strong within me it rapidly became something of a piercing obsession. It remained unclear to me if the organization I so desperately wanted to join was an organized group that ran things from behind the scenes or only a group that made the lives of those people who actually ran things somehow more difficult. I made many enquiries and eventually came to understand what I had to do. There was a door and you knock on the door and someone will eventually open it. You explain to the man that opens the door that you have new ideas that will contribute greatly to the secrecy and efficacy of the organization and he asks you what exactly these 'new' ideas are. And this next part is incredibly important: you must absolutely refuse to tell him. No matter how much he asks or how much he pleads you continue to say nothing. In this way you create a sense of mystery and a desire, on his part, to know more. It seems like a stupid strategy but within the strange logic of the dream you are surprised how well it actually works. Then there is a period of several years where you are somehow aware that you are loosely associated with this secret society even though you have yet to witness any concrete evidence of its existence. Still, you have made the first step, a certain degree of progress, and you continue to have hope.
I am very nervous to write down my dreams, somehow plagued by a nagging feeling that one's unconscious should not be exploited for artistic ends. This was one of the topics I often used to speak about with Paul (not his real name, and I'm sorry Paul, I know you didn't want me to write about you and I am writing about you anyways — but I suppose this will be neither my first nor my last betrayal.) Because art itself is a kind of dream and to portray a dream within a work of art or to transform one's actual dreams into works of art seems in some sense redundant. But not only redundant. For in many ways ones dreams represent aspects of one's deepest self, and there is no reason to publicize such things carelessly.
There is a kind of dream therapy in which one takes turns placing oneself inside each of the different characters one remembers from ones dream, since each of these characters simply represent different aspects of the self. So if you were to have a dream in which you were beaten by a police officer you would put yourself in the place of the police officer and intuit what he says, thinks and does as if such words, thoughts and actions were only other aspects of your self, and within your unconscious you are never only the one being beaten but also the one doing the beating. Just like in life one is never wholly innocent, one must continuously feel implicated, always take on aspects of the collective and communal guilt.
So several years passed and, though I felt confident that I had remained somehow implicated within, if not the inner circle, at least the periphery of the global secret society, I still had no further concrete or factual information as to the intricacies of it's actual machinations. Occasionally I would hear something, a snippet of overheard conversation from the next table in a restaurant, or read something, a note left in my mailbox at work or a single sentence in a larger unrelated article that subtly hinted at some ongoing, hidden network. But you realize that you have been told to wait and therefore all you can do is wait, confident, or at least cautiously hopeful, that sooner or later they will call upon you and you will finally be given the opportunity to stealthily slip upwards in the ranks towards an eventual goal of penetrating the inner circle.
In the dream you are also married and having an affair and your wife is also having an affair and somehow you begin to suspect that the man your wife is having an affair with is in fact quite deeply implicated within the secret society that you remain a casual, loosely affiliated member of. At night, in bed, you think of confronting her about this, not about the affair, but rather trying to find out whether she can use her sexual connection with this man to help you, her husband, advance within the ranks. You most certainly don't want her to stop having the affair, not only because then you would have to stop your own affair, which you seem to be enjoying immensely, but also because then your only real lead, your one opportunity for further advancement within the secret sect, would rapidly evaporate. You are afraid that if you raise the question with your wife she will misunderstand you, think that you are only confronting her in order to force her to break off her affair. And somehow you also have to do all of this without letting her know that you are aware of the existence of the secret society, since you are not sure whether or not she is aware of it, and if you were to speak about it to someone who is not supposed to know it would once again harm your chances for further advancement.
Fortunately, one night while you are still paralyzed by indecision, unsure how to properly breach the topic, your wife assists: first she tells you that she knows you are having an affair but that it is perfectly all right since she is also having an affair and, if you agree, she proposes that you both continue. You instantly agree. Then she tells you that, although she doesn't understand why, the man she is having an affair with would like to invite you to a meeting. She gives you the time and address and for a few hours you couldn't possibly be happier. Though all of this has taken place over the course of many years.
Paul had a motorcycle (actually he didn't but it is my hope that this detail will render those of you who know him unable to identify who I am in fact referring to since, as I have already mentioned, that is his explicit wish, or more specifically, since I have already defied his most explicit wish, I am hoping this is the next best thing, a compromise he will still disagree with but will somehow have to settle for.) I would see him on his motorcycle, driving around at night, consequently lost in his own spiralling thoughts, as if trying to figure out a complex problem that was meant only for him and him alone, or perhaps thinking nothing, his inner world merely my distant, idealized projection of what I might be thinking if I were him. Sometimes, on these nights, I would flag him down and we would talk for a while. Or go for a drink. Or he would park his motorcycle and we would walk. And he would tell me things and I would listen, everything he told me striking me as brilliant and alluring. And yet at other times I would let him ride by, certain that he had not even noticed me, not wanting to interfere with what I assumed were his endless and endlessly fascinating inner monologues, since in the end, even when we were to drink or talk, I couldn't help but feel that when all was said and done his thoughts were meant only for himself, were being shared with me reluctantly, almost against his will.
One time he asked me this: If you were to take all of your thoughts, all of the thoughts that you had ever had, and divide them into two piles, with one pile being all the thoughts that you've had that were helpful and productive, and the other pile being all the thoughts you've had that were unhelpful and counter-productive, and assuming both piles were of approximately of equal size, would more of the group of thoughts that emanated directly from your unconscious be in the helpful pile or the unhelpful one?
And you go to the rendezvous with the other man, the man who shares your wife's bed when she is not with you, and he takes you to a large room full of people you feel you somehow recognize. There are several well known artists at the table as well as the man who once opened the door, who inquired about your idea 'which would contribute greatly to the secrecy and efficacy of the organization' and to whom you refused to tell anything. At this point in the dream you can barely recall how many years ago that was but you are certain that you have noticeably aged since that time. And you are at a meeting where important things are being decided, important things for the future of the secret society and important things for the future of humanity. And you are having great difficulty following the exact meaning of the discussions since they are making reference to many things you don't know anything about or know about in only the vaguest of terms. But nonetheless you are extremely excited to finally be at the centre of it all, where things are being discussed and decisions are being made. If only you could understand what the decisions being made actually pertained to.
So you start drinking, as you often do in uncomfortable social situations, as you often do in dreams, and soon you realize you are extremely drunk. It is only this ridiculous drunkenness that allows you to stand up and make the following proposal:
"Hello everyone. This is my first time here. And I'm drunk." There is a smattering of amused applause at your drunkenness. "But I was thinking, I mean, I think that everyone here can't help but wonder why..."
No, of course you are not that drunk. There is probably not enough alcohol in the world to make you get up in front of a room full of strangers, strangers you respect and admire and for some reason wish desperately to be included among, and propose something chosen almost at random. However, that night you meet a couple and, because you are so drunk you cannot even remember where you live, they take you home with them. At first you think they are planning to propose something sexual between the three of you but when you arrive at their home, a rather large modernist house overlooking a river, you realize that in fact they have something quite different in mind.
The last time I saw Paul was a little bit harrowing. I always felt that the main source of tension between Paul and myself was that Paul, consciously or not, resented the fact that I was a mildly successful career artist while he, though he was clearly much more talented and brilliant than me, had no art career whatsoever and, to the best of my knowledge, had never produced anything or, at least, had never attempted to show anything or get published. And because I felt this way, and suspected that he had also felt this way for many years, in fact almost for the entirety of the time I had known him, one night I decided to ask him about it. And it wasn't really like I was asking him anything, it was more like a direct confrontation, like I was accusing him of being a lifelong coward, accusing him of wanting to make and show art but being too afraid. He bristled at the mere mention of my accusation. "Artists are lepers," he said to me, "you, your friends, the entire world culture of artists and bohemians, it's like you have some strange sort of leprosy. All you want is people to look at you and look at what you do and think you're special and talented. You want it so badly that you think there's something wrong with those of us who don't." I nodded solemnly, feeling guilty as he continued: "Trust me, I don't need fan letters to tell me my thoughts are interesting and valid. I'm confident... my life has it's own path... my thoughts are there own reward." And then he turned around and walked away, not looking back for even a second. I have to admit I didn't completely believe him. And of course now, when he passes by on his motorcycle and I try to call his name or flag him down, he no longer stops, just keeps driving along.
In the living room of the couple they offer you green tea before revealing a secret panel in the wall, behind which sits only a single book on a stand. The couple tell you the book is like a key to the secret society, it contains all the doctrines, strategies and histories. It was written by many people over many generations. The book is called "A Dream For The Future And A Dream For Now" and the moment you read the title suddenly you become aware of the fact that you are only dreaming and moments later you leave your own body, your own perspective, and enter into the bodies and the perspective of the couple whose home you are in, both of them at the same time (don't ask me how this is possible) and you understand how they see you. That they have let you into their home only to lead you astray, that you are a nothing, a poser, some stray dog sniffing around the margins of their organization, and they are showing you the book only because it is a complete fake. That the book is a broken map, a false lead they are providing only to distract you, to send you down wrong alleys in your misguided search to get closer to the heart of the organization. And then you are back in your own body, back in the part of the dream that is fully occupied by the character within the dream you identify as yourself, and you look at this couple who have invited you into their home, who have offered you green tea and hospitality and sympathy, but who have done so only because they feel scorn for you and wish to lead you astray. And all you are able to feel towards them is a delicate and infinite tenderness.
is a writer and maker of eccentric performances. (Searching for a more accurate description than 'theatre director' he eventually stumbled upon 'maker of eccentric performances.') His books include: Unrehearsed Beauty
, Families Are Formed Through Copulation
and Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed
. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART
he has co-created: En français comme en anglais
, it's easy to criticize, Unrehearsed Beauty / Le génie des autres
, La famille se crée en copulant
and the ongoing HOSPITALITÉ / HOSPITALITY
series. In 2007 he was invited by Sophiensaele (Berlin) to adapt and direct Wolfgang Koeppen's 1954 novel Der Tod in Rom
and in 2008 he was commissioned by Campo (Ghent) to collaborate with Pieter De Buysser on An Anthology of Optimism
. He travels internationally with alarming frequency and frequently writes about contemporary art.