The mysteries remain

July 16, 2010

I was told long ago by a wise old artist that every maker, craftsperson and artist should ‘guard their work in the privacy of their own soul, keeping it secret’ for fear not only of theft by all other unscrupulous artists, but also of dissipation; the artist who tells becomes a mere teacher who enables others to be artists, and loses their own power of creation.

Even then I strongly disapproved of this immoral notion, though I do think that teaching requires additional, not alternative, gifts. The chap imparting this old-fashioned nonsense didn’t mean ‘don’t sell your work or your skills’, or ‘don’t publicise it’ – but rather ‘do keep it a mystery, don’t tell anyone how or why you do it, because they’ll steal your ideas and copy your work, maybe better’

I’ve always thought this a bit insecure, but it’s not really old-fashioned – some people still think like that, and indeed, in my working life I have had some experiences along the lines he meant. I have seen unmistakeable elements of my work appear in the work of a much better-known artist, soon after they’d visited my studio (complimentary, that); I have discussed with another well-known artist my early-stage ideas for a work, as yet rather fragile and tenuous, to have them destructively criticised and demolished so as to be unworkable for me, though useable for them; one church for which I’d made a very successful annual fundraising commission for many years told me that someone else was going to ‘have a go at the same thing’ for them this year, as they’d got the design and it would be cheaper; and I’ve shown groups of arts students round my studio and gallery, who had been instructed by their tutors to photograph and ‘copy’ my work.

Worst of all, I’ve even found that an organisation promoting artists (that I had previously been a member of for many years) used an image of my work inappropriately as a bouncing home ‘icon’ on their website’s homepage unattributed and without my knowledge or permission (when I was no longer a member and hadn’t been for some time) – and they thought I should be pleased with the publicity and feel honoured to be chosen. When I remonstrated they gave me 2 years’ free membership, but still charged me to participate in all events (like open studios). And the photo’s still there, though my free membership’s lapsed, so they must think it works well for them – but at least it’s got my name on it now. 

None of this, however irritating, matters in the overall scheme of things – for three reasons. First, my work’s signed all over – and my style is recognisably my own to the extent that I can claim my own work effectively. Next, creative exchange is very different from plagiarism, and of course there are many mutual benefits in studying other people’s work and engaging with the thought behind it, which is all possible without exploitation. Most of all, it seems to me that making art is not concerned with concepts of ownership and theft, or appropriation and dissipation – it’s simply that certain ideas or problems present themselves to us individually and have to be examined, explored, and solved if possible.

It’s this engagement with process, the continual challenge, the investigation, the development, the vision, that’s not something that anyone can steal. So I continue to talk about my work and demonstrate techniques without anxieties about dissipation – it holds its mystery intact for me. But I like actually doing it even more than talking about it. That’s the secret.

(‘The mysteries remain’ from Trilogy by HD)

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