Dawn of the Dead

Up from The Cape: 31 August 2017 
I did a writing exercise recently in which I breathed life into someone from my past who had what might be described as a “complex” set of psychiatric problems. For the purposes of the exercise I turned him into a fictional character. This was specifically to give me an excuse for him to be writing his memoirs. He was going to write them in exactly the same self-pitying style he used whenever he hijacked the attention of his colleagues at work. It was something he did habitually to tell them about unbelievable events in his life that he’d made up (or at least I hope he’d made them up).

What this exercise revealed to me is just how fine the line between sanity and madness really is. Once I’d pushed off from the shoreline of the story and eased out into the main current, it felt like white-water rapids grabbed the boat I was in and carried it bobbing and pitching downstream in a way that was completely out of control and terrifying. As soon as that creative process had begun, all manner of hideous figures comprising fragments of people I’d known, sprang to life spontaneously to populate the exercise. It felt like rafting through a zombie flesh-eater landscape.  Hideous, un-dead figures rose from the earth on each river bank, and began a stiff-legged march towards the story with their arms outstretched.

It’s easy to imagine that if our cognitive functions have become impaired, this facility we all appear to have for creating
madness can take one’s life trajectory a little off-piste. Rocket launches used to have, and as far as I know still do have, someone
called the Range Safety Officer. Range Safety’s job is to monitor the trajectory of a launch vehicle. If it appears to be going off-course in a way that could prove dangerous, the vehicle can be blown-up in order to prevent a wider catastrophe downrange. Would that we all had someone like that in our heads. There’s many a story I’ve watched clear the tower of someone’s launch pad, only to have it malfunction badly and come thundering down towards everyone in the viewing stands. When that happens to your story there’s not much to be done; you can run, but you can’t hide.

I suppose it’s a fundamental truth to say that in order to be creative it’s necessary to be at least a little unstable. Everyone I’ve met with a creative bent to their life calling has had at least an element of pinwheels spinning behind their eyes. I’m not immune to it. In my case it manifests harmlessly for the most part through photographic work. Occasionally, however, I’ll have an inner dialogue with myself. If printed out it could form the basis of a conference for mental health professionals. It’s probably best I don’t share the detail of that with anyone here.

Some of the time the dialogue I have with myself is just amusing. One morning I was looking at myself in the mirror. This was an innocent preliminary to shaving, not as you might fear the manifestation of delusions of grandeur (that much has been done, as they say). My face has been on active service for quite a long time, and all that wear and tear is showing. I looked at the sagging under my chin and said aloud “Do you know what, you’ve left it too late to become a gigolo.” It’s lucky that was never my career option of choice. Even so, it’s never a happy event to be reminded that a window of opportunity, if ever it existed, has passed. None of us like to close off our options.

Thankfully, at least one aspect of the creative mind I’m reasonably sure I’ve been spared is being scatter-brained. I noticed this characteristic in creatives a lot in the days when I had the delusional notion (encouraged I will say by people who probably should have known better) that my photographic work was artistic. With typical (for me at least) left-brain attention to detail, I trailed around art gallery preview nights in an attempt to gather enough raw data to understand what exactly the art world wanted. How could I have guessed that whatever it is the art world really wants, it doesn’t want anyone like me?

It won’t come as a revelation to anyone to find that artists often attend preview nights as well as non-artists. I had an opportunity to speak to some of them, in the main just in idle chatter. Over the course of about nine months, I came to a broad understanding of what best characterised the creatives who attended the events I went to. There are two essential categories.

1) Creatives who, like me, may not actually be artists, but have succumbed to well intentioned praise from others into believing they are – at least for a while. This group has a tendency to be coherent in what it says in conversation, but as the evening wears on it drinks too much. After that the coherence vanishes and they (or we) become hard to understand or tell apart from the other group.

2) Artists who are mainstream. This group has been accepted by the art world as its own. Unlike the first group (whom the art establishment regards as pretenders because they need to hire gallery wall space rather than receive it via invitation), group two has “made it”. In this context “made it” translates as “allowed to put four or five figure price-tags on their work” –  though not necessarily with any expectation of selling anything. Galleries, I discovered during my nine-month research exercise, operate on much the same principle as the old Hollywood studio system. It can be expressed simply as “don’t call us – we’ll call you.” Galleries don’t state it in quite such bald terms of course, but there is a stock piece of text most of them fall back on when discouraging the “pretenders” from group one:

“We plan our exhibitions many months in advance, and are not currently accepting proposals from artists.”

In other words, don’t call us; we’ll call you…….or not.

Mainstream artists, or at least most of the ones I spoke to at previews, are inherently unstable, and generally about two degrees below a melt-down most of the time. This also equates with being barking mad. The consumption of alcohol at events doesn’t alter that condition, but the availability of alcohol to the non-artists can go a long way towards flattening out the differences. After that, pretty much everyone who has put away six or more glasses seems equally mad. From then onwards  the game is anyone’s. You might not actually be an artist, but if you’ve put enough away you can certainly talk like one.