Watching the recent public demonstrations protesting, at times violently, the Coalition government’s budgetary cuts, I was forced to revisit a long-held personal dilemma.
I’ve described myself as ‘a writer’ from the age of nineteen, writing, at first, a series of features in and around the disparate areas of contemporary art – while at the same time arguing with very little subtlety in favour of my grand vision for the world, and how it should work.
While my writing today may well have outgrown its incipient characteristics of undergraduate anger and a quite spectacularly misplaced sense of superiority, I’ve not lost those early impulses to write.
Indeed, I’d say my desire to write – the compulsion to put pen to paper, as it were – has remained largely unaltered in what’s now a decade-long career.
Similarly, my motivations – explicitly political as they doubtless were from the start, against capitalist social relations and diametrically opposed to the current order of things – have stayed with me.
I’ve not so much as purchased a copy of Socialist Worker, however – despite the obvious opportunities to do so, especially while attending a redbrick university in the North. More to the point, though, I’ve never joined any kind of physical march, riot or protest – against anything.
This I’ve always found difficult to explain, and is therefore my principal reason for this essay: to justify why I write rather than riot; to demonstrate briefly where this is mirrored by others; and to argue how this paradox must be upheld.
When George Orwell wrote his seminal essay ‘Why I Write’, from which I take both title and inspiration – at least, in part – he made plain the motivations for a very particular type of artist: the writer.
Orwell, only a handful of years after his own participation in the Spanish Civil War, then provided four motives for writing: sheer egoism; aesthetic enthusiasm; historical impulse; and political purpose.
I myself would eschew, though not entirely dismiss, points two and three. As a writer, it’s egoism and political purpose that defines both aim and achievement – and I’d pose further that, good, bad or indifferent, it’s ‘artist’, rather than writer, that best sums up my state of mind.
Orwell wrote, ‘[A writer’s] subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own’. For it’s the age in which we live – in our case an age caught between nostalgia and end game, with no great war, civil or otherwise, to guide us – that defines the artist.
Half a century after our last and perhaps greatest triumph as a nation, late capitalism here – and indeed on the richest side of the planet – is in inexorable decline. Paradoxically, however, no tangible alternative’s to be found anywhere. No mainstream political party stands against the status quo – either within Parliament or without – nor does any institution, from the TUC to the student-led Uncut movement, maintain even a semblance of competence to take up the role of political vanguard on behalf of the majority.
It’s this state in which we find ourselves, and it’s this same state within which the artist is perennially trapped.
‘The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish … But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.’ Orwell continued, the thrust of his argument now self-evident: ‘All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery’.
This mystery or, for Orwell, ‘demon’, is that which is shared by no other: the drive to commit to the redoubtable force of one’s art.
‘Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’ – does this not précis the artist as allegory, and expose so brazenly the fact that, alongside egoism and selfishness of purpose, the desire to change people and the world in which we live is why writers write?
The great poet and novelist Charles Bukowski famously said, ‘I was a protest march, alone.’ Here this ‘laureate of American lowlife’, as Time magazine described him, more than simply inferred that the true place of the writer lies not on the barricades, but in the garret.
Likewise, the French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille formulated a ‘philosophy of action’, arguing all the while that ‘the only true protest is beauty’.
Such aesthetically-orientated egoism is, surely, the purest possible proof of why writers write – and not fight.
In rebellion, the artist finds his or her purpose; in selfishness, his or her motivation. The result of this contradictory cocktail is to render the artist incorrigibly detached, as outsider and observer, chronicler of contemporaries and leader, too – but never, tragically, party to proceedings.
There are and always will be exceptions, of course.
Indeed, one artist of which I’ve always been fond is Claude Cahun, the subject of one of my earliest pieces of journalism. A Surrealist photographer and writer best known for her subversive approach to gender and sexuality – maintaining, as she did, the possibility of a third gender quite opposed to mere androgyny, akin to the writings of Havelock Ellis – Cahun also died for her art.
Imprisoned by the Nazis for her activism during World War II, she had produced an enormous banner and draped it from a church, stating, quite matter-of-factly: ‘Jesus died for the people, but the people die for Hitler’. She would herself perish only a few years after the war, as a result of her treatment in prison.
And yet, there’ll always be artists willing to join marches – even, paraphrasing Orwell, in more ‘tumultuous, revolutionary’ times and places, to die for the cause.
But in such cases, most especially the latter, ‘Art’ has long since been sacrificed for something altogether more profound. Moreover, these people fail at such a point of no return to be artists any longer – at least, in the ordinary sense of the word. They are, in fact, heroes, and should be treated as such.
I, however – and for all my bluster to the contrary – merely write.