ORDINARY PEOPLE DOING EXTRAORDINARY THINGS
by Julianne Regan
Julieanne Regan argues that the levelling out of the pandemic has shown is that despite the art being special the artist is anything but…
“Why do people think artists are special? It’s just another job.” (Andy Warhol)
‘All Is Vanity’ (1892) by Charles Allan Gilbert, presents an optical illusion. It offers a woman admiring herself in a mirror, and almost simultaneously a stylised skull. That nanosecond where our perception flips from one to the other, is known as a Gestalt switch. The illustration is a ‘memento mori’, a reminder that we are all mortal and therefore our death is inevitable. There are no exceptions. Nobody is that special.
Unlike Andy Warhol, some people do think artists are special, and that specialness is something to be found in the eye and ear of the beholder. I have absentmindedly ingested a whole week’s calories’ worth of kettle chips while watching Víctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, while the brilliance of the cinematography consumed me. I’ve listened to Bowie’s Low on repeat during seemingly never-ending train journeys, being mentally fast-tracked to my destination thanks to its splendour. Bowie and Erice, among many other artists, are special to me. But isn’t there something vulgar and unsavoury about any proclamation of one’s own worth and importance?
A fellow – forgive me for referring to myself as such – ‘creative’ once told me that they felt they were more important than a neurosurgeon. Remind me if I ever need a brain op to get a songwriter in so they can cure me with a particularly amazing chord change and an incredible pre-chorus. It’s just skills. That’s it. We’re not that special, we’re not channelling angels, (unless we’re Arvo Pärt maybe), and we’re not geniuses, (unless we’re Björk maybe). Nobody owes us a living, and there’s a fine line to be walked between confidence and arrogance. Making music is great but so is designing the Shard, so is volunteering for the RNLI, so is fixing my boiler. There are moments, for sure, when a creative person gets to inhabit the zone, or as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might say, achieve a state of flow. Csikszentmihalyi conducted research into what is known as the autotelic personality. An autotelic individual will pursue an activity if that activity is intrinsically rewarding, in that they are personally getting something out of it, and having that experience, rather than gathering acclaim or money, is their prime incentive.
Doing what you do for the love of it doesn’t necessitate that you live in a shack, eating roadkill, so if fame and cash comes the way of the autotelic, it doesn’t follow that they’re going to refuse. Many a portion of chips has been wrapped in articles about how a band would rather die than compromise and how they’re just doing it for themselves. In fact, Sam Richards once wrote in Uncut that Ride ‘…were just four nice boys who did what they did, and if anybody else liked it, that was a bonus.’ (2021). The Fast Show’s sketch ‘Indie Club’ saw a bucket-hatted, Gallagher-esque Simon Day introducing the fictitious band Colon. He urged the viewer to catch them at the Dublin Castle for £3.50, with the concession rate giving a saving of 50p, and added that this would be the only concession Colon would ever make because ‘…they’d rather die than compromise.’ The band then gave a fey and underwhelming performance, with any need for accommodation or adjustment being rendered superfluous.
Not because they compromised, but because they were between record deals, another fellow creative found themselves claiming unemployment benefit. They experienced their fortnightly trips to the dole office as rather traumatic, concerned that they might be recognised. To mitigate the risk of this they wore a hat, but thankfully eschewed the accompanying fake nose and glasses combo. They felt strongly that there should be a ‘designated counter’ at the dole office for people who had previously ‘done something with their lives’.
Prior to Covid, a survival job might have been undertaken so that an individual could pay the rent while they pursued their real passion. However, Covid’s effect on the music industry has presented a number of creatives with a dilemma regarding their standing. Are they too ‘special’ to take on a survival job while waiting to once again make their living though playing live? The suspension of much of the entertainment industry has impacted not just the artists and the players, but the riggers, the drivers, the lighting technicians, the merch sellers etc.
I know two top guitar technicians, the creme de la creme, who work for world-famous, enormodome playing artists. One has been doing home grocery delivery for a supermarket chain, while the other has been climbing telegraph poles for OpenReach. Becky, who drives massive trucks filled with band equipment, has had to learn to survive in what she calls ‘the real world’, driving between Amazon distribution centres. She doesn’t find it that physically taxing but she’s mentally exhausted by the end of a 5.5 day week. On the day I spoke to her, she was driving back from working with Two Door Cinema Club at the Cruïlla Festival in Barcelona, which she described as having been a ‘much needed breath of fresh air’. She was also set to be back at the day job the next day. I’ve worked with all three of those people, and know them to be grounded, hardworking, good people. They don’t consider themselves too ‘special’ to venture outside of the ivory tower of the entertainment industry. They have bills to pay, kids to help through Uni, and mouths to feed.
Me? Although I spent many years as someone who earned their living from creating, recording and performing music, I’m fortunate enough to have a job that’s, so far, proved to be pretty Covid-proof. I’m a university lecturer and a blend of online lectures and face to face contact got us through the last academic year. Between my last record deal and this job, I’ve had to do some gruelling jobs, including working as a cleaner and then as a health care assistant. I have to admit that more than once, while emptying a fetid cardboard bed pan into the macerator in the sluice room, my thoughts turned to having played The Royal Albert Hall. I wasn’t too good for the HCA job or too special for it, but it wasn’t an easy thing to do for a living.
I was only a little bit famous for a limited amount of time. I never became a household name, and so of course I understand that my experience will differ from that of über-famous individuals who couldn’t slip back into day jobs as easily as I could. How about if Paloma Faith fell on hard times and ended up delivering your new kettle from Argos? What if you go to give your binman a Christmas tip and it turns out to be Gary Numan? I guess you’d get used to it, and so might they.
There is often magic, beauty and thrills to be found in art and music, and that there are people to create and share that is a blessing, but for an artist to believe they are in any way superior for being able to do so, is arrogant and unbecoming. The pandemic has reminded us that on one hand we need bus drivers, checkout operators, waste and recycling collectors, postal workers and nurses to lubricate the turning of our little worlds, and on the other we artists make music and film to distract, excite and soothe us. We want and need both, and there’s no place for false hierarchies. To quote Bette Davis’ character Margo Channing, in the film All About Eve; ‘You’re in a beehive, pal. Didn’t you know? We’re all busy little bees full of stings, making honey day and night…’