The Blind Artist

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Olivia Laing has opened up a whole new world for me. I thought I knew something about the art world. Not a lot I’ll admit. But a little something. Enough for me to know I didn’t know enough, and that I wanted to know more. The first book of Laing’s I read was The Lonely City. I can’t describe fully how I felt once I finished the book. It was like being in the living room of all the artists she spoke about, watching them create. She doesn’t just talk about the art they make – she somehow knows how to talk about what they must have been thinking when they make art. Side note, if you have some time, check out this video of her home. It is truly one of the best things I have seen in a while.

I find that so fascinating. I paint sometimes. I’m not any sort of a great artist, but I can talk about the things I think about when I make a painting. It isn’t much to be honest. Most of the times I repeat dialogues from movies I’ve seen recently. Or I talk to myself in third person. Sometimes I describe the scene as a narrator would. This last thing is a little bit like an out of body experience. I talk about how I think I would look like if I was in a movie. The introductory scene of a movie. I probably don’t have enough meat in my painting sittings for it to be an integral part of the movie. It would definitely only be a light hearted opening sequence. Nothing more than that. Sometimes I will describe the painting to myself as I am making it. It is like an ongoing commentary on the painting, most of it criticism. In all these actions, I put myself at the centre of it all. I’ve always felt a little silly doing it, but I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling till I heard Laing talking about it. She says art is selfish. It is a wholly singular experience and you have to be sure of yourself, to be able to defend your art against against not only other people, but also against yourself. Things like self-doubt. Or in my case, complacency. I think it is selfish too.

I just finished another one of her books. It is called ‘Funny Weather‘. It talks about why we need art in these times of emergency. Unlike the only other book of hers I have read, this one isn’t just about visual artists. It has many forms of prose (essays, interviews and diary entries) about many different kinds of artists – authors, poets, filmmakers and every one in between.

One of the artists she talks about is Sargy Mann. And the most fascinating thing about this artist is that his best works (arguably) came after he lost his vision. Before he went blind, he was constrained by what he knew to be the true representation of things. After he could no longer see, this ceased to be a consideration. That is when he really started painting.

I think it is a great metaphor for life too. One encounters it a lot if you think about it. Being limited by what we know to be true or think we know to be true. Like when you try and manifest things, you’re always told to get rid of your “limiting beliefs”. The reason many of us can’t get to what we want in life or out of life is because we simply don’t think it is possible. If you have already experienced something, you know it is possible and so you have no limiting beliefs about it. For many young lawyers out there, for example, working in a big law firm might not seem possible because they have never worked in one, so they don’t know what it is like, so it never settles into their psyche. For someone who has worked in one, they know it can be done, so they don’t have limiting beliefs about it. They may have it for something else though. They may never be able to fathom how a happy relationship is possible because they may never have seen one. And as long as you operate within the bounds of these limiting beliefs, you will never really know what you are capable of.

Sargy Mann didn’t know it either. Till he went blind. And then, all his limitations were forcefully taken away from him.

I could be inspired too

There is a proverb (I think it is a Buddhist one) which goes a little like this, “comparison is the thief of joy.” Neat little way to sum up a lot of the criticism I see when it comes to social media. At least the surface level criticism. How it makes us feel bad to see these perfectly constructed online lives of high achievement, in comparison to the mundane lives we live in reality. I know that there are a lot of other things that are wrong with the whole social media scene (and other people have done a much better job of talking about this, check out this video if you want some food for thought). But basically, when it comes down to it, a lot of the stuff on social media makes us feel bad because we compare it to the things we have (or don’t have).

I don’t want to talk in general terms. Let me give some examples of things that always make me feel bad whenever I come across them online.

People Travelling

I hate how perfect everyone’s vacation looks. I am sure that if and when I put in effort into clicking pictures while I am out vacationing, I could also, sort of maybe come up with something that is decent. But I get lazy when I travel (that is when I’m not having a terrible time of it, like I’ve said before). I see reels of people eating pasta in small Italian villages, or perfect looking girls making montages of their chocolate syrup and croissant breakfasts in Paris, or people hiking in a pretty Japanese forest; and I instantly feel bad about whatever I am doing. I could be having a perfectly enjoyable day (tucked in bed with coffee and watching a movie I like) and seeing these images of other people enjoying their trips will mess me up.

Happy couples

I don’t want to sound salty (maybe just a little) but seeing people post about how they have found love and happiness makes me want to gag. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy for everyone that has this in their lives. But since I don’t at the moment, I don’t see why I have to cheer along this obnoxious display of cuteness. I refuse to participate in the cheer. It instantly reminds me of how single I am. Which by the way is a perfectly fixable situation if I just get out of my room and make the effort to meet new people. But where is the fun in that. Imagine a life without cribbing.

Well-trained dogs

This is an odd one I know. How can anyone hate on dogs, you might be wondering. I don’t. I love dogs. More than a lot of other things in fact. I have a dog, and I would do anything for the little beast. But if you’ve been around for a while you’ve probably picked up on the fact that he isn’t the best behaved dog out there. Ok that is an understatement. He’s a heathen. He’s all over the place. He never listens and he is spoilt as spoilt can be. All my fault, I know. I didn’t raise him well enough. Be that as it may, looking at videos of highly trained dogs turning tricks like climbing ladders or balancing glasses of water on their heads (which by the way, why on earth would a dog need to do any of this, it honestly is the worst form of showboating) irritates me.

Now that I’ve given you a few examples of the things that make me sad or irritate me, let us talk about the flip side of this.

I recently came across an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience which had Kevin Hart on as a guest. Amongst the many things they talk about, they also touched upon how social media, and looking at the lives of people who are better off (apparently) than us, might not always be a bad thing. The episode is also wickedly funny, and I would highly recommend you giving it a listen.

Anyway, Hart talks about how sometimes he looks at social media posts of other people who are doing better than him in a particular field (especially one he wants to improve in) as a source of inspiration. He looks at these posts, and instead of automatically thinking, and feeling bad about, the things he doesn’t have or isn’t necessarily good at, he tries to think of ways he can emulate the people he looks up to. Or how he can draw inspiration from them and think about the ways in which he can improve.

Putting it in context; forget the stuff I get envious of. I follow a ton of art accounts on Instagram. One of them is an artist called Sophie. I’ve never felt bad looking at her posts, even though she is ostensibly doing a lot better than me in the field I want to excel in. Instead, I love the way she posts consistently. Not just the finished project, but her entire process – the things that have inspired her, the ways in which she incorporates things people tell her about, the times she gets stuck and what she does to get over such creative blocks. I aspire to be as consistent as her in posting about my art. I want to get comfortable about showing people the process I follow in making the things I make, as silly as that may sound.

I thought this was quite a positive spin on things. I always talk about how bad social media is and how it gives me anxiety. But Hart talking about it as a source of inspiration sometimes, and not just comparison, made a lot of sense to me too.

Why am I on Instagram all the time…

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Pexels.com

I’ve had an Instagram account since 2013. I was 18 when I started my page on Instagram. At the time it was just something people used to post pictures on and the concept of an influencer did not yet exist. In fact, some of the first accounts I followed were just random accounts of photographers posting pictures of nature, or interesting travel destinations. I had, I think, about 32 followers within the first year – all from people I knew from school. I also remember that I thought I had stumbled upon a fairly unknown app that I could use just to scroll through pictures for ideas (something like Pinterest maybe). I wasn’t an active user of the app for many years – logging on only once in a couple of months to post pictures of something truly momentous (like weddings, graduation or travelling to exotic destinations). I never used hashtags for the first couple of years, kept my account private and couldn’t care less what people thought of my account or how many (or few) followers I had. I didn’t feel compelled to follow people I knew in real life on Instagram and I didn’t use it as a comparator to see everything that was wrong with my life – especially when compared to the glossy perfectness of other people’s lives.

But a few months ago – October of 2020 in fact, I decided I want a change in life. A very dramatic one, in fact. I had a bit of a mortality crisis and thought about how I really did not want to spend all my time sitting behind a desk. Every morning I woke up with the conviction that I would quit my job and become a full time artist. I started reading all these posts about artists who had risked it all and made it big. But in addition to this brand of ‘all-or-nothing’ preaching, I also came across something that resonated with me. I’m sure all of you have heard of the artist ‘Banksy’. If I ever become a renowned artist and have to talk about my influences, his name would definitely make it to the top three (I’ll probably write about my artistic influences later on). He’s notorious for never revealing his identity, and never taking money for his art works (even though they almost always sell for millions in second hand sales). His opposition to the commercialisation of art is the stuff of legends. If you don’t know much about him, and have even a fleeting interest in the arts, I suggest you google him. I promise you, it will not be disappointing. Anyway, Banksy says that because of the internet, for the first time ever, we don’t need snooty and highbrow art gallery people telling us if our art is worth anyone’s time or not. The internet is free, and everyone has access to it. So go ahead, post yourself.

And I did. I decided I would use Instagram as my artistic outlet. I would make art – physical, digital, whatever I could – and post it online. It took me sometime to get over my fear of judgment and social anxiety to start posting my art. I even made an anonymous account on Instagram and posted some art on that page, and when I saw that people didn’t completely hate it, I shut down that account and started posting under my own name. Yeah, it was a whole journey.

Now there are two schools of thought at play here – in any field really, but more so in the creative field. One is what I like to call the ‘Lonely Genius’ trope. Where your creativity and artistic skill is a gift straight from god (or whatever other higher power you believe in) and you should toil for the sake of it. Your intentions have to be pure and limited to bringing your wonderful art into the world without caring about where it gets you. The second idea is that being talented is all well and good, but it won’t get you anywhere if you don’t adequately market yourself. So, as mortifying as it sounds, make sure you get out there and promote your own work. There is no point in being a great artist if no one knows you are a great artist.

I went the first route for some time. Then I got tired of not getting enough attention. I got tired of trying to act like I was too cool to advertise my own work (I think I was just too shy to do it). That is when I started researching how I could grow my presence on Instagram. If you have ever googled the words ‘how do I grow my Instagram account’ or some variation of it then you know that the internet is full of advice. And I mean, full of it. I poured through articles, sat through tons of youtube videos and even signed up for a free newsletter course just to try and figure out the secret to getting internet famous. As a side effect to all of this, I became hyper aware of my Instagram account and how it must appear to outsiders. I developed a social media addiction – but of a slightly different kind. I wasn’t logging in to check up on my friends and family or to compare myself with others. I was logging in to pour over my own account, to see how many people had viewed my stories, to see the kind of likes my art was getting. I also made the mistake of switching to a business / creator account on Instagram. Just to clarify, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the creator / business accounts – I just don’t think it helped me a lot. I was obsessed with my own online presence, a sort of convoluted modern day Narcissist who couldn’t stop looking at her own reflection.

I did everything the articles told me to do. I posted consistently. I kept a track of the right time to post. I made my captions long and explained (or at least tried to explain my workings and the idea behind a piece in the captions). I put in the relevant hashtags. And in all these months – I think it has been roughly 11 months since I first got started with my Instagram obsession – I have managed to grow my account by only about 200 people. Now to any weathered Instagram user, these are rookie numbers. And I agree. You have pages online dedicated to bursting bubble wrap with millions of followers. How insulting must it be to put in all that effort, to make art, to do everything by the book and still not be entered into the upper echelons of Instagram fame. But here is the thing, I couldn’t be happier with my growth.

Firstly, these are 200 people. Can you imagine 200 people in real life? Hosting an art viewing in person and 200 people show up – that is a huge success by any means. The idea that real life people live behind their Instagram handles often gets lost on us sometimes. We are so obsessed with numbers and statistics, that we often forget that behind each username there are actual people who made the effort of going through your work and thought to themselves, “hey this isn’t so bad, I think I want to see more of what this artist has to offer.” Ok so maybe some of them might have been bot accounts, but you get the idea. If you stop thinking you are entitled to internet fame just because you showed up and played by the app’s algorithm, then you will realise what a privilege it is to be supported by each and every person that shows up.

Secondly, even if there was no one looking at your work or where you have come, it wouldn’t matter. And I know a lot of people are going to read this and roll their eyes. But it’s true. It really comes down to a simple question I ask myself every time I want to post something or if I do post something and it doesn’t get any likes (or as many likes as I would want). Will I stop making art if other people stop liking my stuff on Instagram? No. So, I stopped caring about the statistics and just put myself out there.

I also like the idea of having in place a ‘legacy’. This is a concept I got from a YouTuber I love – Ali Abdaal. The notion that if you have a body of work and you post it online, you create a repository for yourself even if you never blow up. You have something to look back on and something to show for all your effort. I couldn’t agree more. I may not have had an astronomical growth online, but I love looking back at how many pieces I have created and put out.

I know this post went to a lot of places, and even though it dipped a little in the middle it ended on a good note. I want to spend some time in the future talking about how becoming obsessed with my social media affected me in bad ways. I know that there is already a lot out there talking about the ill-effects of social media addiction, and I may not have anything new to add to that. But still, I’ll try just the same. Having said that, if you are also starting to put yourself out there, I hope this is helpful.

Why I started painting again

I used to love to paint. I think I was even called talented by a bunch of people a few times as a kid – and you know how that can get to someone’s head. I used to paint all the time, but for some reason I stopped as soon as I got into college. Come to think of it again, I think college might have been the reason I stopped painting.

College was a lot of things, but most of all, it was overwhelming. Met a lot of new people, learnt a lot, and tried a host of things (some of which I hope I won’t try again) but I also gave up on a lot of things I used to enjoy. The worst bit is that I didn’t even realise everything I was missing out on.

So fast forward a couple of years. I started working my corporate job. But now that I was out of college and the many distractions it had to offer, I realised that adulthood was, well, a little lonely. I didn’t really have much to do besides work and sleep. Oh yeah, I would go drinking with my friends every other week. But there wasn’t anything like the constant engagement one gets in college, or even high school. I was doing ok, but I really didn’t have anything to fill my time apart from working, talking about work and drinking myself silly. Very uninspired living, I know. And yet, so like the lives I see all around me.

On one of my many uninspired Monday evenings though, I remembered I used to paint. It may sound silly, but it felt like some long lost memory had resurfaced. Little bit of a Jason Bourne moment honestly. I remembered how much I liked painting, and then I tried to think about why I had stopped. I couldn’t come up with any good reason. So, I decided to give it another shot on the coming weekend – or any other day I managed to catch a break from work (at some point, I am going to write about the kind of work I did and why I never had time for anything else in my job). And I did. Here is what I learnt from picking up a childhood pleasure again.

I’m not very good at it, and that’s ok

All that hype I received as a kid for my ‘artistic skills’ was, in my opinion, exaggerated. They probably only said it to be nice, or because I was marginally better than my peers. I wasn’t anything great, and I’m still not now.

But here is the thing – I would spend all my free time painting. It made me really, REALLY happy. I used to run through sketchbooks at an alarming rate. All the walls in my childhood home were painted over. My parents were generous enough to supply me with a steady stream of art material (and buying it myself as an adult I realise that some of it is quite pricy – so I’m eternally grateful to them for that).

So now, getting back into this hobby again as an adult, I promised myself I would paint at least once a week without bothering about how good I, or anyone else, thought the work looked. And honestly, having something outside of work – a personal commitment to do something every week – has made my life at least 10 shades more enjoyable. Really, if you think you have a creative bent of mind, just get out there and make something. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to make money or make you famous – it just has to make you happy. Like my favourite author Neil Gaiman says, “the world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”

I have become more confident about it

Back in the day, whenever I made something, I would look for praise. I couldn’t just make something because I wanted to make it or because it gave me joy. I was very performative in my art. I craved appreciation. I would paint in front of my parents or any other adults around – relatives, friends, art teachers. And I would wait for them to look at the work and tell me how amazing it was (for someone my age). Every time I finished a painting or a sketch, I would immediately run around showing it to everyone. Definitely an attention seeker. The downside of course, was that I never made anything for myself. If people didn’t react with the awe I had become used to, it made me incredibly sad. I left a lot of art pieces unfinished because people didn’t appreciate it in the ways I wanted them to.

Now as an adult, it was only natural that these childhood tendencies would start to creep back in. I was determined not to let that happen though. I wouldn’t make art or stop making it because of what other people said. It isn’t (yet) my main source of income and I only make it to make myself happy. So why care about what others have to say? I started making art, and posting it too. I still remember the first time I posted my art online. I was so nervous. I had this (very unreasonable idea) that people would think I’m (a) showing off or (b) desperate for attention. And then there was the fear that they might call out my art itself – for not being good enough to be posted. But then I realised a few things. Firstly, no one cares. Really, think about it. Do you care if someone you know starts making sketches and putting them up on their website or say Instagram? No. You’d probably just scroll past (and if you’re a nice person, you might even like it). Once you realise that people aren’t bothered with what you’re doing, and that everyone only ever thinks and worries about their own lives, you’re already on your way. If you’re the only one who really cares (and your mum maybe) about what you’re doing – then you might as well do what you like. Second, given the free flowing nature of the internet, for the first time ever, artists and creatives can communicate and display work in a way never done before. And well, if someone doesn’t like what you make, they can always stop looking right? You aren’t forcing anyone to look at your work (you couldn’t even if you wanted to).

Nowadays, whenever I feel self-conscious about posting online I try to remember a couple of things. Life really is a single player game. So, I push past the embarrassment and the fear of judgment and make whatever I want, and post whatever I want simply because I can. There is a really good book by the name of ‘Show your Work’ by Austin Kleon, which talks about the many benefits of showcasing your art to the world. I’ve read it, I love it, and I highly recommend it to anyone else who struggles with putting themselves out there. Once you get over that initial fear, you’ll realise how much fun it is, much like I did.