There was a rather provocative exhibition I read about recently. The artist had decided to take a cold, hard look at the realities of living a creative life, for most people. Knowing how singularly undervalued art and artists are and how relatively unlikely it is for any given artist to make it as a professional, he organised an “art amnesty” – a series of dumpsters where artists could renounce their status as artists, throw their art away and recognise that they were pursuing a fruitless, unrealistic dream. Artists that did so were awarded a badge that bore the inscription “I am no longer an artist”.
According to the artist staging the exhibition, when most artists die, their friends, relatives and heirs are left to clean out their studio, after they’re gone and if the artist has not enjoyed very much success and acclaim, quietly and with embarrassment, take all of their works to the rubbish tip or surreptitiously burn them all. Their creative life, which started out as a journey filled with hope and joy, ends in obscurity, shame and ignominy. The artist who staged this piece was hoping to highlight that if an artist threw away their art before they were gone, it would spare those that survive them the pain and chore of having to do so. It was a pretty bleak message.
Sadly and almost embarrassingly, it isn’t far from the harsh, uncomfortable truth. The work of uncelebrated artists has virtually no value to anybody, when the artist dies. It is all too often simply thrown away or otherwise destroyed. There is something poignant and very sad about entering the studio or workshop of a person that has striven to live a creative life, who has recently passed away. The tools and materials are still there, just as they were left, but the creative spark that used to wield them is gone. Without the artist or craftsman, these remnants of their creative endeavours are a mute testament to an extinguished creator.
Without the creative person, the tools, as fine and specialised as they may have been, become just so much clutter and a problem for somebody else to solve. A non-creative or even a non-specialist person can never see the utility and value in the tools that remain and rarely have they the space to store these items. Store them for what purpose, anyway? If nobody has an inclination or intention to use these tools, irrespective of how useful and brilliant they may have been in the hands of their deceased owner, these objects lose their purpose and function. An artist’s tools and materials are very personal items that reflect their unique identity as artists. No two artists will gravitate to the same collection. Abandoned tools and materials are like fading ghosts. They ultimately become forgotten and meaningless.
Usually, the tools and materials that are left behind are distributed to various claimants, to the point where there isn’t enough of the whole collection for anybody to do anything useful with them, or they are sold for a pittance, given away to (very fortunate) strangers that might find a use for them or simply discarded. Sometimes, a tool or two will be kept for wholly sentimental reasons and as a remembrance. They are silent reminders of a person who was once so filled with ideas, imaginative concepts, vitality, life and the skills and abilities to bring their imagined concepts into reality, but who has gone forever.
So should we all adopt the realistic approach and abandon our art, before we die, becoming people that are no longer artists? Interestingly, the exhibition showed how reluctant artists are to do that and this, of course, was the point of the provocative installation. Although the tools and unsold artworks lose their meaning, when the artist dies, they have immense value and meaning, while the artist is alive. They provide purpose. An artist’s tools and materials are the tangible substances with which they conjure and bring into existence things that haven’t been seen before. A life lived as an artist, whether or not they are celebrated, is a purposeful life, with motivating goals and meaningful achievements. Who cares if nobody else understands or appreciates the talents, years of practice, mistakes, blood, sweat and tears that went into the making of these artefacts?
Artists would be wise to consider leaving instructions for what to do with their remaining tools and unsold art. If they cultivate a younger artist, in their capacity as mentor, then passing their tools on to this person might be very gratefully received indeed. It would also mean that the tools would continue to be used as intended. There would be some continuity, too, between mentor and student. Using those handed-down tools, naturally, would be tinged with a certain regret and sadness, once the older artist has passed on, but I think they also inspire their second owners to treat them with reverence and to honour the memory of their mentor by producing fine things with those tools.
It does make you wonder what will become of all the materials you use as an artist, when you are gone. Perhaps it is a morbid thought. Maybe it’s better to remind yourself to use those tools to their fullest potential, while you still can. You have a certain responsibility to make the best use of the tools and materials you have available to you, before they go to waste. Idle, under-used tools are almost an abomination. Make the most of them.