The Unbearable Art of Sameness

Years ago I went to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, you know, the one with what’s-his-face’s shark in formaldehyde and the only piece of art that has stuck with me forever was a painting called Arabs Crossing The Desert. I paused in front of that painting and I haven’t moved since, because I had never seen anything like it – the way the sweat glistened on that horse and how a lost moment in a distant desert seemed to scream at me from across the sand.

And when I got home I mentioned the picture to an artist friend of mine and he said: “Gah! You like that? But what’s the point of painting something a camera could do equally well?”

I reckon I know as much about art as I do about fashion, so perhaps it’s ironic I mention that painting when I really want to write about our constant urge to bring everything “into line” and why I think it’s damaging our creativity. Maybe it’s because I want to prove to you that I am nothing if not conventional and that’s exactly why people like me should not be the gatekeepers when it comes to deciding “what is art?”

Another friend told me recently that his favourite Gabriel García Márquez book was Autumn of the Patriarch and because I get jealous when other people cite books I haven’t read as their favourites, I dug out a copy and gave it a go. I’ve only reached page 37, but already I’m amazed, even though I can only read a few pages at a time because the book is so rich it feels like you need half an hour to digest each line. And yet, it’s depressing. I can’t stop panicking that no-one writes that way any more and, if they did, would anyone publish it?

At journalism school, sometime around the turn of the century (ha!) I wrote an essay deriding the dumbing down of the press, at which my tutor produced a copy of a newspaper clipping from the 1800s and read me a news story about a woman who had been caught having sex with a cow (at least, that’s what I remember. It may have been a horse)

“Humans are humans Vicki,” he said. “Nothing ever changes.”

I know every journalism student since the dawn of time has written the same essay I did and I always hope there’s a tutor around to show them lewd clippings from centuries-old newspapers or, at the very least, a Woody Allen film that reveals the folly of false nostalgia.

And, yet. Here I am. Frightened that our obsession with making everything the same will render us incapable of recognising true genius simply because that genius is sometimes the opposite to what we expect. My copy of Autumn of the Patriarch doesn’t have a single paragraph break in 229 pages and the prose is as thick as treacle. Too many critics consider García Márquez embarrassingly traditional, but I haven’t seen anything like that in years. Have you? Maybe there’s a whole world of originality and eccentricity out there being financially supported and cheered from every corner. Why do I doubt it?

This is an amazing video. Andrew Solomon reminds us that years ago we wanted to cure homosexuality in the same way we would now cure Down’s Syndrome if we could and yet, we’ve already proved we’re not the best at deciding what should be “cured” and what should not. Thank heavens they didn’t invent a pill years ago to change all skin colour and physical features to those of white Europeans, because you know we would have used it. You can’t watch The Imitation Game (El Código Enigma in Colombia) without wondering if Alan Turing was autistic and I’m guessing we would have tried to cure that too if we could and where would that have put me, right now? Would I even be publishing Banana Skin Flip Flops without the man who invented the modern computer? (The answer is probably not, but not for the reason you suppose. If Turing shortened the war by two years, well, my grandfather survived heavy fighting to come home in 1945. My mother was born in 1946. You do the maths)

Let’s go back to the safety of the art world. I remember Tracey Emin criticising the Turner Prize, saying collective, compromise judging drove it to the centre. I hear a lot of “you should” among writers too – “You should do this to get published, you shouldn’t do this, you should do this to sell your work, you shouldn’t do this.” In fact, there’s a whole swathe of “you should” driving our art to the centre as we speak (and when I hear them I always wonder: “But what about Kafka? Shouldn’t you at least finish a book before it’s published? That guy couldn’t finish a bloody sentence)

I guess what I’m saying is: Stuff the “should” people. Break their rules. The only path I’ve ever seen to fulfilled genius has been practice, so do your art, do it over and over again, until you make it perfect your way, not theirs, and I guess the same goes for your life too. And I’m sure that’s advice you’ll take from me. After all, I’m the girl who likes portraits of horses.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.


  1. Ric Dragon

    I saved this post, wanting to return and share some thoughts. It’s a wonderful thing, perhaps, when people say, “you should do this,” or “you should do that.” For, as writers, they’re opening up the windows into their minds, revealing their inner prejudices; their own inner critics; the sandbags of ballast around their own minds.

    Your poor painter friend was caught up in an argument that was quite relevant over a hundred years ago, when the daguerreotype was invented. Degas, one of the best draughtsmen of his time, happily used photographs to inspire his own work. And yes; the invention of the camera released painters from an obligation to record the world like a dumb box.

    Of course, what WE do with their “shoulds” is our own *mishegas*.

    There’s poetry in “Arabs Crossing the Desert.” Perhaps it’s a great painting; or perhaps it’s elevated kitsch. Who cares? If it resonates with you, that’s wonderful. If a cow sawn in half in a tank of formaldehyde moves you – or makes your mind go spinning out of control with thoughts and feelings – great. If not, we find what DOES.

    It can be a LOT of work figuring out what we really like, as opposed to what our cognitive and cultural biases are. When you DO figure it out, yes, don’t let anyone question those likes. Your likes, your passions, – those are what make you intriguing.

  2. Ceri

    I think the only book I’ve ever read that had no paragraphs at all and just endless prose was the unedited scroll of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”.

    I’m a big believer in breaking the rules – especially when it comes to forms of artistic expression. Most of the greatest artists, writers, and musicians in the world lived by the “Stuff the ‘should’ people” rule.

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