Photo: Montréal, 2008 – Magazine OVNI no 2
Jacob Wren writes of life in the political realm, life as unavoidably political. He’s been an active writer and performance artist in Montreal, has published numerous books, including my favorite Unrehearsed Beauty, and is founder of PME-ART, an interdisciplinary art group. I wrote to him asking if he would submit himself to a line of questions concerning a short post called “Must Lead To Something Else” that he made on his blog A Radical Cut In The Texture of Reality. My questions are intrigued by fame, death, worth, fantasy, art as being, and risk. Wren has kindly answered all of my questions with his usually passionate, abandoning spirit, that same spirit that moves him to question his self- assurance, making him think he is surely moving toward decline as an artist, which makes him, for me, securely relevant.
Q: What is something you’ve written you knew was worth it? What made it “worth” it, and how do you define worth in writing? I want to ask not if you “believe” in art for arts sake, because that question is flat to me, but do you engage in it? Do you create simply to create, or do you create for some other reason? How does “intellectual capital” play into your reasons for writing, if it does?
A: I don’t think the phrase “worth it” really connects with me. In some ways I create because I can’t help it. Ideas pour into my head and I try to write them down before I forget them. Then I work on them some more, before I put them out into the world, just to make sure they say more or less what I think I want to say. I don’t know what this material is or isn’t ‘worth’, to me or to anyone else. If I start wondering what’s the point I fall into an endless free fall of pure, paralyzing despair, so I simply try not to think about it too much. I know when I was younger I had very intense, in a way very positive, art experiences (reading books, seeing visual art and performances) and these experiences, at the time, made me feel that art was something worth doing. I don’t really have those kinds of experiences any more, though I sometimes still read and see things that feel important to me. Sometimes I think that art is mainly for young people, that as you get older, as you see more, it becomes increasingly difficult to have an intense experience of art, but, on the other hand, maybe I’m just aging badly. (I also have fairly intense health problems that must negatively effect my perspective on the world. I try not to blame my poor health too much or too often.) Of course, at times, I do hope that my work gives other people intense art experiences similar to the intense art experiences I had when I was younger. Since I do in fact receive constant, fairly intense, praise for my work there is some evidence this may, at times, be the case. But mainly I just try to keep it all in the realm of fantasy. Making art is a fantasy that one can make something great, something that might last forever, that one can make things that connect with people in an intense manner, that there is some point to it all. In the realm of fantasy I can still, at times, be energized by these kinds of desires (perhaps desire is a big part of it,) while in reality I generally find things more dispiriting. I have also always liked this quote by the visual artist Maurizio Cattelan, something like: ‘When you’re an artist, you have to admit you want to be famous.’ I do have so much ambition, really much too much. I don’t know where it comes from or what to do with it. But it seems that it’s always there.
Q: Fanny Howe talks about experiencing a light when she was young that she called G-d. She doesn’t have that anymore. I’m aware that you’re an atheist, but is there something about youth that creates art? That creates art’s worth. Is that why youth is for the young? What then of the aged? Are we to “be” instead of create? Can a person be art? What kind of art would you be as art?
A: I believe Adorno says somewhere that art is always connected in some way to ritual, spirituality, religion. I think he might even say that art is the modern form of religion, but I’m not sure. (Unfortunately I don’t have the reference.)
Even though I’m really, really not a believer (Vladimir Holan quote: “But we who do not believe are always expecting something”), I do think there is some implicit connection between art and religion, a longing for something else, something that goes beyond the everyday, that goes beyond mundane experience, that transcends everything or almost everything. Sometimes, when I’m talking about making art, I say I feel a bit like a priest who’s lost faith, a priest who no longer believes in G-d but continues to give the weekly sermon anyways, simply because that’s what he does. At any rate, as I often say, faith is always a struggle with doubt.
I think when you’re young you’re just constantly discovering things, everything is new, so much of what you see you’re somehow seeing for the first time, there are always things out there you hadn’t yet thought were possible. As you get older, you’ve seen more and more, it naturally takes more to impress you. It’s harder to experience that good old ‘shock of the new’. This is also strangely religious, leaving the garden of Eden, having to be out in the cold, hard world where genuine surprises are few and far between. Still, I do meet people who are able to maintain an ongoing sense of wonder and enchantment for their entire lives. They’re rare but I’m certain they exist. Unfortunately I’m not one of them. Maybe this is something else about art, it is a lens through which we can view the world that, at times, can make it all exciting again. On the other hand, a natural ability to be curious and excited about life would be even better than art.
I’m 42 and I have to admit I do feel kind of old. I feel tired. I try to keep going, stay energized, but am not sure I’m doing as well with this as I might like. Ten years from now I suspect I will feel even more tired, but I’m not sure this has anything to do with art. I think it might just be me.
We do live in a youth-obsessed culture, and this obsession is a kind of cultural suicide, since we all get old, all have to find ways to continue being excited with life even though the world is no longer excited with us (since we’re no longer young.) There is no reason to stop making art and no reason to keep making it. Every day is a struggle. But if our culture could re-discover some sort of deep respect for older people, this might be a change for the better. I’m not sure how exactly this could happen.
I don’t know what it would mean for a person to be art. I suppose the kind of art I already make is the kind of art I would be if I were art.
Q: I love that you admit fame is a desire of the artist. So many say they don’t want fame, but then why else create? That’s what I’m getting to. Why else, else create? Besides just being known as an artist? I think it’s an important question if not to answer then to ask. Do you think fame is a trap for the artist, spiraling him/her into the paralysis? Or is it necessary? Or is it part of what it means to truly understand how to be an artist? Unless you’ve struggled with these real interior parts of oneself that want the fame, can you really create art?
A: The problem is, if you want to be famous, it’s definitely not that easy. There are a lot of other people out there who want to be famous as well, competing with you. Culture is very controlled, it’s difficult to obtain acclaim, especially if you’re making work that’s significantly different from the norm. So, in one sense, saying one doesn’t want to be famous is simply a way of protecting oneself from inevitable disappointment.
But I think there are an infinite number of reasons one might make art. The desire for fame is only one of them (though a pernicious and controversial one.) There are as many different valid reasons for making art as there are for doing anything else. I’m not sure one needs to ‘struggle’ with the parts of oneself that desire fame. I think one can simply accept it as a normal, natural part of being an artist. It’s only if you’re unethically stepping on people on the way up that you should really start questioning yourself about it. Perhaps the more difficult struggle is learning how to live with disappointment. What’s that Jay-Z lyric… ‘in order to survive you have to learn to live with regret.’
Q: How do you feel about so many passionate, positive reviews? Do you ever feel the whole thing is a hoax, like, I’m not the real thing; I’m a fraud of myself. Is that why you like naivety or think perhaps art is for the young? Or the opposite, do you love your positive reviews, or not care about them. Is that as much a part of your identity as artist/ writer as your work?
A: I actually feel that I haven’t gotten so many positive reviews. And most of them have been published in kind of obscure places. I feel like my work is pretty marginal. Some people have heard of it. But, in general, the only people who know about me are other artists. Nothing I’ve done has really reached very far beyond the scene (or many different scenes.) So, I don’t know, I feel a little bit successful but actually not so much. I don’t know if this assessment is accurate or self-deprecating.
I know that a lot of artists secretly feel like a fraud but that’s never really been my problem. I have a slightly different version of this neurosis. I feel like I have a lot of artistic potential that I have never really been able to fulfill. Maybe it’s the same thing, I not sure, I think there’s probably some slight, significant difference in nuance. I feel my potential is mainly limited by self-sabotage, and my goal is always to sabotage myself less.
At the same time, if people like my work, hate it, or are completely indifferent, I still believe I need to keep making the work in a way that feels right to me. I listen to the feedback and commentary, but I don’t listen to it so much. Mainly I listen to some sort of obscure, difficult to define, inner voice that tells me whether things feel right or feel wrong. It’s mainly instinct and intuition. And when things feel wrong I’m completely miserable. I have an overwhelming desire to get back on the right path, to try to get back on the road where things feel right once again. All of this also has something to do with ethics. When things feel ethically wrong to me, they also feel artistically wrong. The two questions are always joined in my imagination. And it’s always changing. Something could feel wrong to me now, and in five years from now the exact same thing could feel right. My internal compass is always shifting, recalibrating, going haywire and then returning to some sort of temporary equilibrium. I don’t know exactly why.
Q: In a previous conversation you admitted that making art is a fantasy itself. Does art make us fight the reality of death, or does art undo the reality of death with life itself, by the fact of its own creation? Is art its own reality fighting or creating life in the face of death or is it a fantasy of its own, hiding death from us? Perhaps you say connection is the reason you create at all? If that’s so, does art then imply that the art can only be understood in interaction? What kinds of interactions are you interested in making?
A: I don’t know so much about death. Of course we all die. And death is often hidden in our culture, our relatives no longer die in our homes, we often live as if death doesn’t exist. There’s that James Baldwin quote:
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.
But I have to admit I don’t really think of art in relation to death. On the other hand, I do sometimes say that I’ve decided to spend less time making performances, and more time writing books, because books have the potential to continue even after you’re dead. I do think one definition of art is: art is something that lasts.
And yes: interaction, connection. There are all things I search for through my work. The dream that my work will connect me with the people I might genuinely want to know. (Though, in my actual experience, my work can also very easily connect me with people I completely can’t stand.) But I don’t know what kind of interaction, what kind of connection, I’m actually searching for. I suspect it is a kind I will never actually find. At least not in any sustainable way. Maybe I don’t really want it. Maybe in the next world.
Heather Palmer W. creates art and writes in the NYC area. Check out her blog heatherpalmerw.com for updates and thoughts!