Last week I was immensely lucky to spend a week in a writing workshop run by my literary hero, Tim O'Brien. It stands to reason that any chance to work with someone who means so much to ones (my) professional practice can be a real disaster. What are the chances that the week can actually live up to the hopes of a swooning literary heart?
As it turns out: 100%. A totally stellar week that fortunately was populated by 6 other great folk. No megalomaniacal navel-gazers, no weepy rhyming poets and no goths. Just a good, broad group of folks who wanted to talk about and focus on story-telling.
Such a funny thing, to spend time in an environment where people don't feel the need to balance (or subjugate) narrative concerns to material and formal issues.
And so I come out of the workshop (with a sign that reads "Reserved for Tim O'Brien) and realize the thing that I've known all along: Writing matters more for what I'm trying to do than painting.
Painting: first and foremost, it's about the inherent qualities of the medium, so any response via painting is based on how the artist responds to paint, not the world and not their own lives. Sure you can start with those latter concerns, but rest assured you're painting in the ghetto.
Writing: First and foremost, it comes from language and, more specifically, the alphabet. The alphabet is structured to tell stories (True). If you assemble those letters into some combinations, you get stories; other combinations will thwart or – if we're being generous – challenge our assumptions about language.
Somehow, somewhere, literature emerged from its modernist rapture (that's a pretty big assertion to put into one sentence, but so be it). Arguably, painting never did. Sure, there are many great examples of successful narrative artists, but often enough, within the dialogue of those artist's practice, narrative is contextualized with concerns for the medium. Do we do this because we really care about the material more than the constructed content, or do we accept that speaking about materiality will put in greater favour with the curatorial powers that be? Take a look at this year's RBC shortlist with that question in mind. Take a look at every year of the RBC comp. with that question in mind.
I guess then what I came out of the writing workshop with is this: Why would I spend so much of my energy and enthusiasm for telling stories in a culture which doesn't trust story telling, or sees it as secondary to materiality? Answer: I wouldn't.