John Ruskin, that most dubious of Eminent Victorians, was one of the most passionate advocates of what we’d call Art in the community. Sadly for those who like things black and white, good and bad, politically correct or no-platformed, his writing on work is fascinating and prescient. You can have perfect things made by people who must act less than human, or imperfect things made by people who can fully express their humanity in making them, he said. Being a machine is not what we are for.
Operating in this tension is how I’ve spent my life. I have failed most of the time. I include things on my CV that I am a bit ashamed of, to tell the truth, and my list of exhibitions which grows longer and more impressive each year conceals the sweaty and compromised realities of disappointing sales, private views attended by my two friends and the gallery cat, boxes of unsold books and postcards and a storage area that is now too full for me to get to the first few paintings I put in there. But there are times…there are moments when I am making my paintings that I do actually feel completely human, times when I shout to my wife over the noise of the radio ‘it’s okay, it’s okay, I am a genius after all. We’ll be all right’.
There are people who seem to get what my paintings are about and there are times when my work is validated by a sale, a competition successfully entered, a grant obtained, and they’re wonderful. But what really makes it worthwhile are those flashes of time in the studio when craft, art, will and experience all seem to shift together in synch. I don’t really care about anything else.
Ruskin was a driving force behind the Workers Education Authority. He used to lead drawing classes in the evenings so that in the evening, after work, people could do something else, have a glimpse of a way life could be different. He believed that learning to draw would help you to see better. He wasn’t after making people into artists, just into better people. Better people make a better community.
I am not saying we should all learn to draw. What I am saying is that there must be some place where the values of the market, the horrible lowest common denominator, do not apply, some space in which we can make things without having to consider their instrumental value, in order for us to be properly, expansively human.