Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 January 2005
Issue No. 724
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

Could there be such a thing as a born artist? Someone who comes into the world with an inborn talent? Do genes have a role to play in the formation of an artist? No doubt some families have produced generations of artists, especially in the field of acting. In England we have the Redgraves, for example; in Egypt, many young actors are the children of older stars.

Yet what exactly does it take to become an artist? This is the intriguing topic of a recent article in the Independent Review, based on a newly published book Private Views: Artists Working Today, edited by Judith Palmer.

The book contains interviews with artists from across the artistic spectrum, ranging in age from 20 to 80 years old. They include painters, photographers, poets, composers, sculptors, playwrights, filmmakers, novelists and installation artists. The aim of the interviews is to find out what kind of life artists in Britain lead today, yet the findings, I believe, are applicable to artists everywhere, including Egypt.

The problems that face artists in formative years seem to be shared by young people who choose art as a career, wherever in the world they might happen to be. Among these are battles with school teachers and disappointed parents.

According to Cornelia Parker, a sculptor, "I had two great art teachers at school, but even they tried to tell me it was too hard a world. But that made being an artist more attractive." Even after winning the Turner Prize, her mother was still cutting out job ads for her.

The question that preoccupied many artists was whether art can be a career, or whether it must remain a sideline activity, with another job guaranteeing a regular income. The writer and filmmaker Ian Sinclair grew up in a family of doctors but "resisted the not inconsiderable pressure to follow in the family profession. It wasn't that artistic activities were alien to them," he says. "What was alien was that you should attempt to make a living by them."

Most parents thought that a regular job is a necessity of real life. But as Sinclair puts it, "My difference was that there was no other real life, this was the real life." Nonetheless the idea of art as a career rankles with some artists. "Art is not a career," insists the sculptor Andy Goldworthy, "it's a life." To which Sinclair responds, "Life and career are the same thing. Every life has to have a plot and a plan."

Many artists believe that, the zenith of their artistic activity over, there will follow a downfall. Martin Parr, a leading photographer, put it rather bluntly, "As artists get wealthier and more famous, often their work gets worse. It's a pretty standard movement." Often the first work, he believes, "produced while the artist is energetic, raw and hungry for doing things", tends to be the most engaging.

Continuing with the same argument, but giving different reasons, the sound artist and writer David Toop says, "The irony is that the more successful an artist becomes, the more administration, the more travel, the more interviews, the more advisory committees, the more students writing a thesis on you, the more just about anything except time to think."

Going these and other "confessions", I could not help thinking about our own Egyptian artists. Is art by itself sufficient for the artist to earn his or her daily bread? And this question will naturally lead to another: how many painters, composers, actors, writers do manage to do this? I wish we had an inquiry like Private Views: Artists Working Today.

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