I’ve been thinking about ego and art lately – how it’s necessary for an artist to have self-belief, to keep going in the face of challenges to time, money…but how it can also get in the way of the work. Attending to Ego – that petulant, unruly child – can distract from the work. In my experience anyway.
A few weeks ago, I saw BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – a thrilling, thought-provoking, funny, sad meta-commentary about theatre and the pitfalls of fame, ambition and ego. It was co-written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu whose father used to tell him,
‘When you have success, just taste it and spit it out, because it’s really poisonous’.
Sage advice but can you imagine someone spitting out success? Perhaps Alex Garland, who found the attention after the success of his first novel, The Beach so uncomfortable that he gave up writing novels. He turned to screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, and most recently, Ex Machina – which he conceived, wrote and directed. Success makes it easier for an artist to keep practising your art… even if it does mess with ego in unhelpful ways.
A while back I attended Caroline Bergvall’s launch of her project Drift and her residency at the Whitechapel Gallery. I think of it still. Despite the accolades and huge respect for her work over 2 decades of dedication to the craft, and her constant innovation, she seems to fly under the radar. Drift was thought-provoking experience, which gave me a new perspective on words – their limitations and possibilities; on collaboration and open-ness and generosity; on attending to the work rather than the ego; and on social consciousness and responsibility. At one point, CB reflects on safety, and the awareness that ‘I am safe, but others are not safe’.
An insistence on putting the work first is one of the reasons I so admire Mimi Khalvati – for her dedication to the craft and for the intelligence, skill and tenderness she brings to her intricate, carefully-wrought poems.
Perhaps collaboration is the way to keep the Ego from rampant, unsustainable growth. I’m reminded of a BBC4 documentary I saw called ‘What do artists do all day’. The programme followed Akram Khan on a 3-day collaborative project in Seville with Israel Galvan, flamenco dancer and choreographer – which became ToroBaka.
In the documentary, Galvan reflects on collaboration:
You approach things first of all with the idea of sharing … a coming together, let’s call it learning, OK? You might find things out about yourself that you didn’t know existed.
…the comfort zone is a dangerous place to be… Sometimes you have to put yourself in situations where you don’t know where you are… it allows you to look at yourself in a new way… You can become stagnant as an artist. It’s very dangerous to become comfortable in your own success.
This idea of openness and collaboration, of not getting too comfortable, is my resolution for this new working year – so I’m putting ‘Openness, collaboration, don’t get comfortable’ on a yellow post-it in my shed. Next to it is a pink note which says ‘Be more Fun’, and a yellow one that says ‘Finish what you start!’ So I have finally finished this post I started in September. That’s 1. Being fun is tough, day-to-day… I could let the children off tidying their rooms today, even though they said they’d do it yesterday and didn’t, even though the big one’s clothes cover most surfaces in her room, and the smaller one’s floor is strewn with lego and cars and books. I’ll watch the Voice with them instead. That’s 2.
Happy, shiny new Year, dear Reader. May it be surprising and satisfying, fun and not too comfortable… like a carved chair I saw once, that seemed to be made of antlers. A beautiful, beautiful thing.