Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Parable of the Good Student.

Many years ago I was told an important story by someone very close to me. He was studying under a talented and highly respected tutor and one day they had a decisive tutorial. During this tutorial the student expressed his deep frustrations with the medium, with life, with art and with the apparent sheer impossibility of achieving anything of genuine value. At length he detailed his commitment, his faith in the endeavour of previous artists and his tenuous hope for the possibility of true realisation. He catalogued his disappointments, enumerated his woes and elucidated his fears. He made it clear that this deep anxiety and profound confusion were leading him to the brink of giving up. During this monologue the tutor listened intently with a fixed and inscrutable smile and eventually the student fell silent. At this point the tutor stood up to leave and without malice, mirth or irony he uttered one word – “Good”.

Recently I wrote the previous story as an intro text to a student publication and surprisingly, to me at least, it was rejected. Instead I was asked for a more conventional alternative and once I’d gotten over being peeved at their ungrateful lack of imagination I decided to write a more standard intro mentioning the usual mix of creativity, commitment, energy, humour, passion, insight and perception etc. Of course, it’s in many ways understandable that they didn’t like my original text - it didn’t talk about them and their work and it didn’t refer their audience to just what promising artists they were turning out to be. The fact is that I’m not at all convinced that many people actually care a great deal about introductory texts to catalogues (except the people who are in them and maybe their immediate friends and family) so my parable was aimed squarely at those who invited me to write the text in the first place. Presumably they didn’t get the message, or perhaps they were mildly insulted at the insinuation that they might be more than a little confused or at least should be.

Confusion has an unhappy home in contemporary thought. We tend to play it down or more often attempt to avoid it altogether since it’s associated with weakness or lack of control. Certainly it’s not a comfortable place to be, but I would argue that it’s a profoundly important place to find yourself as an artist precisely for this reason. If everyone else is trying so desperately hard to avoid confusion then perhaps it’s an ideal place to stop a while and to simply explore. And having stayed and explored wouldn’t we be more likely to return from our travels with something of real value? However, I’m certainly not advocating just any old wholesale, undifferentiated confusion. The previous story describes a confusion born of dedication and hard work: the kind of confusion which comes from scrutinising something so carefully that you begin to perceive its deepest flaws and imperfections. This is the landscape that artists should aim to venture into, and, armed with intelligence, sensitivity and skill we might hope that they’re able to make some sense of the experience and in the process share their discoveries with the rest of us.


J. Hamlyn said...

2012 update - "Confusion Helps Us Learn": http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=confusion-helps-us-learn-12-06-25

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