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.