Friday, 26 February 2010

All I Have is My Voice

This is one of those posts where I'd love your help. I'm putting an article together for the Year Zero site next Saturday on confessional art, and I'd really like to know where people stand so I can address people's thoughts and concerns. So please be as argumentative as you'd like. Each of the paragraphs of this post starts with a question. please chip in to any of those.

What do I mean by confessional art? Well, I mean the kind of culture where an the artist/author/musician wears their heart on their sleeve, takes us into the darkest corners of their lives, writes the painful and the personal, and lays it bare and in our faces. Tracey Emin's "Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995", for example, or, to use two of the people I know and love personally, the writing of Sabina England and Daisy Anne Gree.

Why does confessional art provoke such a strong reaction? Tracey Emin became an object of revulsion and ridicule when she exhibited "My Bed". Sabina has been trolled off Authonomy twice with Brown Trash. I have two theories as to why people react so strongly. First, I think people find the personal disturbing - they feel like a boundary's been crossed. I remember reading an article about snot in the seventeenth century when I was doing my doctorate - apparently that was the moment we changed our view on such things - looking at the contents of one's handkerchief was unacceptable not because it was gross, but because it was a symbol of self-obsession. I think people don't like the way confessional art breaks those social niceties and seems self-obsessed. I also think many people think it's fake - that is what's really at the heart of the criticism of both Sabina and Tracey - the idea that it's put on for sensation. (I'll say in more detail in the full article what I make of these criticisms - for now I'll just say these arguments are lazy, lazy, lazy)

Isn't confessional art the ultimate self-indulgence? Following on from the above. Well, no. I believe art connects people. But I also believe that attempting too artificially to connect with one's audience creates art that's shallow, and that misses the mark. I've come around recently to believing very strongly that the only art that's truly universal in its appeal is art that's utterly individual. Why/ Well, we are all different in sme respect - if we seek too much to emphasise our sameness, we will be chasing something that's not there. THAT is what will lead us to artifice and construct. If we go right inside ourselves we will end up with something true and something that focuses on the one true universal - our individualism (that's the short version :p)

Shouldn't confessional artists get out of other people's faces? No. End of. Art should be in people's faces. It should describe the painfula nd the true about our lives. "People may freely remove their faces from my art. I will not remove my art from their faces"

"It's not art" is it? Because somehow, autobiography is just that - it's a science, it's just "telling it", there's no value-added. Well, the strongest definition I've heard of art in a long long time came from Daisy "Maybe there is no way to leave the world a better place, and the only thing left to do is tell the truth". Isn't art transformation? No, transformation is wish fulfilment. Of course art tells universal stories, and conveys the strange in familiar terms. But IT DOES NOT MAKE THE FAMILIAR STRANGE.

So why confessional art? My answer is simple - because there have been times when it's been the only thing that's kept me alive. What about you?


  1. I'm with you on most points - however, where confessional art/artist annoy the living daylights out of me is when *after* the success of their 'art' they complain about people who feel they know them but don't *really* know them. If artist are going to use their lives as an open books and label it confessional art - then they have to expect reactions, both positive AND negative.

  2. I have no issue with it in an of itself. The problem comes when the general public thinks that all literature is confessional. I am not my characters. My characters are not me. Sure, some of them are based on particular attributes of myself or people I know. But they have their own unique personalities.

    The experiences I write about are rarely based on personal experience (though occasionally I'll pull from my own past or from stories people have told me), and yet haven't we all heard someone asking whether we've really done those things or had those thoughts?

    Confessional literature and art is fine; I just wish more people realized that not all art and literature is confessional...

  3. All art is confessional at some level. You can't create something that is outside your experience, whether directly encountered, or processed by you via secondary/tertiary sources, but which thereby become part of your own thinking & experiences.

    There is a range between the unworked experience of the artist, presented as is, right up to that which is refracted through whatever prisms the artist chooses to employ. But that is not to say the latter has to be any less in your face than the former. I would say my stuff is confrontational and in your face, but it's worked on and ventriloquised (for want of a better term) through characters rather than my direct first hand presentation.

    What is so unique about Daisy's work is that one never quite knows how directly and personal confessional it is. That is part of its genius.

    I'm not sure I agree about your conclusion that only individual art remains left, since I diagnose the atomisation of society and people as part of the current malady, not a healthy option presenting itself to artists to make hay from.

    I suppose my personal reaction to confessional art, is that I'm interested in the metaphorical possibilities of everything (and the derivation from language). Therefore I would always tend to the slight distancing of the metaphor, rather than the direct approach of the confessional reality. The difference between an Impressionist and an abstract expressionist I suppose.


  4. Mar, yes, throwing that layer up after the fact is thoroughly bad form. I can see the logic of saying "you don't know the whole story", but only just - confessional art is a very dangerous thing to do because you DO lay yourself open to very personal criticism. I think it's important to draw the distinction between "I don't like you" as a comment on the art (hurtful but utterly vaild) and "that's not you" - not vaild.

    @Cameron - yes, that drives me nuts - I had a lot of comments on my first novel to the effect that "you can't say that, people will think you're a monster" - and I kept thinking "but it's a thriller,. It's fictin!" What REALLY got me was the other side of the equation, when I wrote Songs, "you're not anything like that character so you can't write her" - those are the two sides of one very bad penny. I'm very much about those of us who say "OK, this piece IS me"

  5. I agree with you and both comments. I'm not very argumentative, am I.

    What it boils down to for me is, I am a truth-teller and want to be even more of a truth-teller, peeling away the layers of mediocrity that have been cloaked on me by society to become more "acceptable."

    I have been thinking about this issue of confessional art - and the issue of how other people judge me based on what I write in fiction. Every time I contemplate it - I run screaming to my own truths.

    What the hell are we doing here if not trying to live and tell our own truths! And, yes, it is hard for other people to hear and we do get lots of reactions.

    But, I think those reactions are from their own inner world of conflict and that is good. Revealing our own truths is what provokes other people to examine their own beliefs and challenges the social norms. If it wasn't, then they wouldn't react.

    You go for it! Writing this way keeps a lot of writers sane! And, it continues the social dialogue.

  6. I disagree that confessional art is about "telling the truth." People are more inclined to lie about themselves in the name of self delusion than then they are to lie about the experiences of others because they can be more unbiased when thinking about the experiences of others. I don't think Daisy and Sabina are confessional artists. They draw on their experiences to construct fiction, but that's not the same thing as what Tracy Emin does.

    As far as Tracey goes, I frankly don't get it. Why should I care who she slept with? It's not like I'm shocked or morally affronted by her divulging the details of her sex life. I just genuinely just don't care. We live in a kind of culture where that sort of personal information is on tap, in people's blogs, on reality TV, in Chat magazine, in the ghost-written autobiographies of chavtastic celebrities. In this kind of setting, confessional art doesn't carry any currency.

    I'm not offended by people examining their own snot. I'm just bored by it.

  7. I think there is a difference between 'confessional' and 'self-indulgent' Dan! The former is like getting up and saying "this is what it was like for me. I want to share it in the hope that you will understand and be enriched by it or that perhaps it will help you" the latter is a sort of wallowing in self-pity, a selfishness that ends up coming across as false.

  8. @cat - absolutely - sorry, that was meant to be a question expressing an opinion I disagree with! I think you've got the distinction spot on

    @Ann - I think I agree with everything you say :)

    @Marc/ella - I may need more sleep to answer properly. It would be rude of me to go into too much depth about what Daisy and Sabina do or don't mean by their art, because it's not my place to speak for them. I will say that you raise an important point about truth and fiction, whcih is the extent to which fiction can be confessional - it's as old as debates about scripture - what do we mean by saying a text is "true"? What are we confessing in fiction? I wonder if that's something that differentiates poetry?

    Marcella - I think a lot of celebrity culture is self-indulgent in the way Cat outlines rather than confessional. But I also think much isn't, and I'm aware I have some very unfashionable views about celebs.

  9. Dan, you don't even have to get into what Sabina and Daisy "intend" with their art as it's beside the point. I've read both of their novels. Is Daisy a twenty something year old male named Daniel who met the devil in a bleak Texas town and then burned to death in a fire? No? Well then, her work is not confessional.

    She's probably drawn on real life for inspiration, but all fiction writers do that.

    I've also read Sabina's Brown Trash. There might be a lot of overlap between Sabina and her Brown Trash narrator, but they are not the same. It's a work of fiction.

  10. There is a difference between those who approach a work of art, book, painting, what have you from the intellectual or the emotional or the completely blank. We approach art based on our own experiences, what has shaped us, raised our foundation and how our tastes develop over time - what are we WILLING to experience?

    I agree most art is confessional to an extent, is based on taste, on experience - but art is also fantasy and when we share our fantasies with others, like love, we must be prepared for rejection. I don't think there should be a controversy because we cannot control how others view us or our work. If we explain too much, we lose it; if we explain nothing, we tango with the obscure. We can only hope to be understood - and not to care if we aren't. We still do what we do.

    When we start to challenge who is or who isn't an artist or what is or isn't art, we're feeding a bigger argument: why art? Why not? From adorning the homes of kings and czars and popes, praising deities and keeping the masses in thrall to revolution and republic and evolution of thought, of what it means to be us, deciding if we want to praise a daisy or a pear or vivisect a memory by comparing it to a rotted orchard - art is the challenge, always.

    In my teens and early 20s, I remember reading somewhere about Madonna as an 'artist' and I thought the idea was ridiculous. How is this trashy, untalented, media whore an artist? Because she has a publicity team that works overtime making sure the public thinks she is?

    Facts emerge - Madonna is clever, knows the market, sees an opportunity and grabs it. This does not make her an artist. Demanding attention, adoration, respect - doesn't mean anything. It's the business of celebrity.

    We're almost better off, being obscure, misunderstood - rather than in a hot spotlight where everyone's opinion starts to form a cocoon around a piece and suddenly the piece is no longer about itself or the artist - but what everyone makes of it. Sometimes that's the point. You either get it or you don't.

    And if no one gets it - they'll move on. It's what we do.

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  12. I believe in this sort of art. You've seen my work. Having said that, I have to say that I think there are things that should be kept private.

    There are lots of things I haven't told. Why? because I think as an artist I have a responsibility to produce, but also to to be mindful of the feelings of other people.

    For example; I think telling people about seeing someone get killed is one thing. Telling them the process by which it happened is another. We have to realise that our experiences are personal. While art demonstrates a product, if the process is too painful, others should not be subject to it.
    I think we have a responsibility to be sane about how 'far' we push people's emotions. We're human, then artists. We can give, but we need to hold back too.

  13. All art is self-indulgent. All art is confessional.

    You have a thought or an experience and you turn it into something tangible that other people can experience, and that is art.

    Everyone wants to read other people's diaries, and all writing is a diary to some extent. It doesn't matter how deeply we cover our stories in layers of narrative and character and structure and syntax; at its very root it's just us in words.

  14. I think this is completely relevant:

  15. If this is confessional art, I don't see how my recent post has anything to do with it. Confessional art is the self, I'm trying to remove the self.

  16. @Marcella - I'll have a watch when I'm somewhere YouTube won't bust my machine :)

    @DJ - I think you and Anne are advocating a middle line if I understand you rightly, but I think, DJ, you are advocating it from an aesthetic standpoint whereas Anne is arguing from a humanitarian point of view. I'm not 100% sure I'm comfortable with either but I know they're points I need to address.

    @Kirsty - I agree, which is why I think there uis an honesty about art that's openly confessional that is lacking in much art that claims something more.

    @Sarah - your recent post ties in with a point I am finding myself wanting to make more and more about the universal and the specific - it has to do with the absolutely specific and absolute self-emptying.

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