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Last year, ‘I couldn’t help but notice…’

… that a few months into this postgrad art course people were breaking up with their partners left, right and centre. About half of the people who came to the program having a significant other had broken up before second term had begun. This number has increased drastically since then… and still counting. Usually, I’d say that’s everyone’s personal business, but my own relationship was somewhat wobbly for the first time ever within 6 years of the smoothest sailing, and I needed to investigate.

I talked to various current and previous art students who had broken up with their initial partners for other students or simply had developed an irrationally strong crush on someone in the college whom they objectively didn’t even like that much. The latter was explained by its inevitability; it’s bound to happen if one spends so much time with the same group of people. Is it equivalent to an office crush though? I think not!

The most convincing explanation I kept hearing during my promptly initiated, slightly obsessive and probably quite annoying private poll at pubs and PVs was that an art degree was something so inherently egocentric that it leaves no space, nor time for a relationship. This rings somewhat true but there must be more to it.

Let’s look at a few philosophers and psychologists to find some answers (as you do) – in particular, in their description of the needs of seeing others and being seen; how subconscious and conscious functions operate.

Building on Lacan’s paper The Mirror Stage from 1949, Donald Winnicott refers to the mother’s face as starting point, focusing on how it impacts on the individual’s development. He states that in an infant’s early stages of emotional development the environment plays a vital role, and is in the child’s mind neither separated from, nor separated by the infant. The parting happens gradually via numerous steps, the main part of which is a shift in perception: to separate out of the mother, who is at this stage objectively perceived as an environmental feature. If the baby doesn’t have sufficient experience of looking and being looked at, they do not see themselves, which leads to degeneration of their ‘creative capacity’.

I wonder if that has something to do with people from the same professions coupling up so frequently as they see those concrete aspects of themselves in each other – apart from having a shared passion, of course, as well as meeting at work or during education at a certain age. But is this all there is to it?

I’d suggest that – comparatively – (and clearly by way of generalisation) an artist’s self-image is a particularly fragile, wavering, fickle thing and consequently needs more reflections to continue somewhat resembling a constant.

Do artists work at their full ‘creative capacity’ when their self-image is intact? Not sure… But how productive could an artist be, who does not think, they are an artist?

Winnicott writes about how the eye to eye contact between mother and child is highly important during the formation of the self and how all of it relates to psychotherapy as a concept.

‘This glimpse of the baby’s and child’s seeing the self in the mother’s face, and afterwards in a mirror, gives a way of looking at analysis; at the psychotherapeutic task, (…) [which] is a complex derivative of the face that reflects what is there to be seen. (…) [If] I do this well enough the patient will find his or her own self, and will be able to exist and to feel real. Feeling real is more than existing; it is finding a way to exist as oneself, and to relate to objects as oneself, and to have a self into which to retreat for relaxation.’*

During the child’s natural development process, identifications multiply leading to a decreasing dependency on ‘getting back the self’ from parental or sibling relationships. A healthy development in the early stages of life is certainly crucial to a person’s functioning in the world. To a certain extent, this formation of self is never completed.

And how could it be? The incompleteness is what permits you to grow, the incompleteness is what drives an art practice to develop; prevents its stagnation.

The self is a slippery thing. Also discussing Lacan, Slavoy Žižek points out that being a subject is a paradoxical and impassive position. Unlike popular belief, the subject is not an all-powerful agent in control because it can never be completely grasped by itself:

To be a subject means radically not to know what for an object I am. Lacan says that the subject always has an object that it is, but the paradox of the subject is that it is an object - unavailable to itself. This surplus of not knowing [has to be embodied in an additional] paradoxical object called object petit a.

Our dependency on others as well as our limited ability to perceive life and ourselves directly are becoming apparent.**

The artist’s desire for making new work may be transferred to finding a new mystical other. Especially when this new other sees them as the person they would like to be.

(However) In everyday life the subject is not completely passive but projects a version of themselves. James Elkins writes, when meeting someone for the first time, one is aware of the way they look, watching the person’s face consciously and subconsciously for signs of how one is perceived. This does not just concern approval, but is more nuanced.

I want an updated sense of myself; I want to know how I appear to the world, what kind of person I am. In short, I am in the process of continuing to define myself, adjusting my sense of who I am by watching for the way the person responds to me. (…) I see myself in the other person’s gaze, and so I see myself being seen. (…) I send out a vision of myself, and I watch as its echoes come back to me. And there is no reason to stop at people, because objects also send back our sight.***

So what happens at Art College then? You see yourself (via constant multiple reflections) most clearly defined as an artist. In fact it is so crystal clear, other aspects and facets of your identity flicker, warp and may just disappear completely. As the own self-image shifts, the former partner’s image of you stays the same. You might not be out of sync with your partner but simply their prior understanding of you. (Alternatively, this situation may produce a positive grounding effect.) Old plans and priorities may change drastically. This can trigger feelings of shame about the inherent privilege of being an artist, intense awareness of its burdens and anything in between.

There is something very seductive about being in art education. It legitimises your practice to a certain extent and replaces crippling questions about the meaning of making…

…with deadlines.

Elkins writes in The Object Stares Back: ‘[The object] has a certain presence – it looks back and again I can understand that as the echo of my gaze. (…) each time I see I also see myself being seen. (…) [Objects] are no longer just things out there to be seen but also places where I can think about seeing and being seen. Each object has a certain force, a certain way of resisting or accepting my look and returning that look to me.’**** The need to be seen by both objects and people is something fundamentally human: the need to be caught in the intersection of gazes to establish and maintain a sense of self.*****

This clearly says a lot about capitalist consumerism but for the artist this means also that they locate their selves via artworks they’ve made as well as other people’s work. It seems a less passive position than being surrounded by exclusively acquired objects. At college the unusual close proximity to a high number of other makers and their creations, takes effect and creates what Elkins names ‘nets of seeing and being seen’, which are necessary for the sense of self to be maintained. The observer and the seen make up each other’s selves by looking. Each is a web, streaming off in all directions with no centre and no self that can be called one’s own.****** I wager therefore, the bigger the contrast of net (of nets) from life before college, the bigger the shock to the system.

Let’s untangle ourselves for a moment from this mess of nets to have a quick look at Marx, who implies that we are wired to have social bonds with the people we ‘swap’ products with, but because no producer has a bond to the product of their labour anymore, we transfer this need for a bond onto the commodity itself. Following this theory, artists who make their own work generally have the luxury of not being as alienated from their ‘product’ as the average worker. Even though artists might not be using the end product (as in: live with/consume the artwork themselves, or necessarily sell it), the self-motivated making process has the potential to fulfil other personal necessities.

Following Marx’s analysis of this natural inclination to developing social bonds, it seems inevitable to feel particularly close to other makers who are unusually close to their own ‘product’ – like we are – even though the ‘swapping’ between artists might just be a visual idea exchange.

The art we make as well as the art we appreciate or surround ourselves with builds, perpetuates and reflects our sense of self in various ways.

It really all boils down to: Can an artist only be fully seen and understood by another artist? And is ‘being understood fully’ a compulsory condition to having a functioning relationship; or even to having an astute sense of self?

Or does the college/any art institution impose an inflated status of the artist - and we narcissistically buy into it? All this happens within a scene that is notoriously dependent on attention and the gaze, while being utterly and unashamedly obsessed with the new, with desire itself, and ultimately: with the other.


*Donald Winnicott, Playing and Reality, p.158

**>> time for a selfie!

***James Elkins, The Object Stares Back : On The Nature Of Seeing (New York: Harvest, 1996), p. 71.

****James Elkins, The Object Stares Back : On The Nature Of Seeing (New York: Harvest, 1996), p. 70.

*****Nemo can be properly called a “furnished man,” (Walter Benjamin, Traumkitsch) that uniquely modern specimen whose psyche is intrinsically constituted by its surrounding objects. (…) [The entire submarine] is where he accumulates all those things that speak to the Captain about himself.’

Excerpts taken from CelesOlalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom, (Pantheon Books: New York, 1998), pp. 175-189 (p.184-186).

******James Elkins, The Object Stares Back : On The Nature Of Seeing (New York: Harvest, 1996), p. 74-75.