At a panel on Polish poetry, with the poet and artist Grzegorz Wroblewski, one of the audience members, clearly annoyed, said he was sick of the idea of the artist as outsider. The theme of alienation in art. I replied that yes some artists and writers in history are also insiders, movers and shakers, but that artists and writers, by being outside in some fashion, have something valuable to contribute to society, as the observer, and perhaps trickster, and can provide new ways of seeing and questioning, an aid against inflexibility and rigidity.
When I read some poems from The Spirit of the Bathtub later in the evening, a lecturer of Polish culture and literature, a little drunk and very annoyed, complained about my poems written about Poland. If “about” is really the right word. She said that Polish people were already exotic enough in London and my writing was exoticizing them more. I looked at my other writing later and I could see it was not limited to Poland. The speaker in my poems is a kind of outsider in many cultures and countries. Also, what is culture and is it always sacred? Yes, of course there are power dynamics to consider sometimes, the domination and destruction of less powerful cultures by more powerful cultures, but I do not find culture sacred, it is often another commodity, traded and sold, usually, or used for nationalistic purposes.
In a well written review of my new book The Spirit of the Bathtub, the reviewer mentioned the theme of alienation and also individualism. They also talk about some existential bummers.
All of this is on my mind because tonight I am teaching “Sasquatch,” a short story by Tao Lin, at the International Institute in Madrid, and the main character, Chelsea, is clearly an outsider, alienated. The narrators of the stories of Sam Pink are also outsiders. I gravitate towards outsiders. Why? What can they offer?
Well, I don’t think being an outsider always means being alienated for one. Or at least painfully alienated. They don’t always have to go hand in hand. But sometimes they are clearly outsiders in great pain.
The artist as an outsider in great pain has become a stereotype, just look at all the movies about writers and artists as alienated loners. We could of course point to a culture that does not value the artist, unless they are in the service of capital. The artist as shaman is certainly of little value for capital. So yes we could move in that direction. The alienated artist because of society. And that is certainly true. But this is of course problematic and I think that is partly what the audience member during the Polish poetry panel was referring to. The self reinforced stereotype of the artist as self destructive. There are of course many books about writers and alcoholism, writers and depression, and there does seem to be an unusually high number of writers and artists with so-called mental health issues. The danger is assuming that in order to become an artist, in the romantic sense, you need to become self destructive. Or, if you are generally happy and adjusted to the mores of society, why write or create art?
But I think it is, in part, not an either/or. You don’t have to be completely adjusted to society (does such a case exist) or completely alienated. By being somewhere in-between, and helping to keep the borders porous, maybe some artists provide a great service. Can it be measured? Probably not.
Existing outside as an observer, as well as inside, is a common technique of meditation. The difference is perhaps that you don’t need to react, just observe, accept, let go.
For such a long time, I tried to jump to letting go. But that just created repression of my emotions, desires, fears etc. Maybe art, as Aristotle suggested with drama, can act as a kind of purging. We just need to know how to let go, and to do it skilfully. If we don’t observe and accept, we might repress, but if we only observe without letting go, we might spiral and end up feeding the emotion, helping them grow larger and larger, out of control.
I think a lot of my favourite artists are outsiders, or outlaws, and also skilful at letting go, at least in their art. I cannot speak to their so-called personal lives. I mean artists like Bernadette Mayer, Frank O’Hara, Eileen Myles, Lydia Davis. They can see the world as outsiders and outlaws, but they are not clinging to this, not weighed down by it in their writing. They have a lightness of touch as observers and outsiders. I think that is the kind of outsider art I am drawn towards. Why? Well, for me at least, it makes me fee less alone and more connected with other human beings, in other words less alienated, more accepting. Also, with looking from an outsider position, everything becomes less serious, and there is less clinging. All of this can be done with a light touch. The artist as trickster, crossing borders, another form of the shaman in modern culture.