Home » But is it art? » Portrait of the artist as an old man

Portrait of the artist as an old man

Not everyone can claim to have sold a painting they have made, not even some posthumously hugely expensive artists. I think we all knogh who I am talking about.

I was listening to an interesting talk by Grayson Perry, the flamboyant, cross-dressing potter. He’s extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful about the art world, but struggled to give definition to what, exactly, is art? He likes proper art, not stuff non-artists claim is art. At the same time, he agrees with Marcel Duchamp that the artist defines the boundaries of what art is, you don’t.

I imagine the first true artist was not the one who drew a willy in the sand with a stick and made everyone laugh. It was the one who pointed at the sabre-tooth tiger in the shadows and shouted ‘run!’… The work of an artist is surely to enhance our ability to connect with what has not previously been seen.

But I sold a painting! Does that make it art? Well, a sale is one of the boundary markers Grayson argues must go with the territory.

Problem is, I haven’t painted anything since. Does selling one painting make me an artist? (I once sold a photograph, so maybe…)

The ‘furnished’ flat I occupied when I lived in the stately home was large and bare, one big room (the Butler’s Pantry) downstairs, a tiny kitchen galley through the back, with no cooker or fridge; a dark and spidery hallway, off which was a downstairs shower room: the old silver vault. Upstairs, in a separate section of the wing were two bedrooms, one large, one smaller (though still bigger than yours!), a bathroom, always cold to the touch, and the cupboard with the leaking ceiling, where my winter clothes went black with slimy mould and the insurance wouldn’t pay out. Contract-carpeted in acid green, the flat was almost entirely bereft of furnishings, and the heating did not come through.

The living room was about 20 feet by 16-something; high-ceilinged and with a single large window facing out to a high, overgrown bank with huge self-sown cherry trees, that let in light for an hour in the afternoon in summer. The floor was made from slate flagstones, in the middle of which was a deep depression fracture that looked like some heavy object, an asteroid maybe, or one of the huge stone pineapples adorning the roof, had plummeted through the ceiling and smashed into the two-inch-thick slabs.

So one of my first jobs was to buy a big angle-grinder and grind out the smashed slate slabs and replace them with another one I found buried in the garden, that I cut to fit. Then as the ceiling and walls had not long been replastered, I spent three weeks every evening for a couple of hours on my knees with white spirit and wire wool, scrubbing hopelessly at the ground-in plaster and paint-splodges left by the previous incumbent, who told everyone she was an artist. She could certainly paint a floor.

The walls, I coloured strawberry pink; above the picture-rail they were Devonshire cream; while the kitchen area was mainly pistachio. It was a cultural dessert. Everyone laughed and said I must be gay. My girlfriend came to live with me. She was going through a minimalist period and painted everything white again. After she left me for another woman, I painted the room back in Etruscan Red, but in one coat only, so some of the white showed behind, like in a picturesque old Italian villa. To break up the expanse of reddish wall, I hung some big canvases from the cheap shop in town and painted them in solid colours, and the people who thought I was gay asked me, are they supposed to be art, ha-ha?

So I got some map pins and stuck them in the canvases, and some coloured silk thread, which I made patterns with by winding it around the pins, and put up a notice inviting people to re-route the threads around the pins to make their own art. Only one person took up the challenge, he made a psycho-looking pattern,  jagged and confused like a spider on LSD. He wasn’t someone I liked, he was higher on the autistic spectrum even than me and one of those people who goes around saying, I know something really important and I can’t tell you what it is, sorry, and you want to hit them hard in the face with a half-brick; only you suspect somebody already has.

Anyway, tiring of this game, I bought two even bigger canvases and got some tins of old housepaint from a cupboard and made two actual paintings. It took all night. One was based on the shapes of the rocks in a rockpool I had photographed on Poppet Sands for my exhibition, Rocktexts, that never got a showing; but reduced to very simple, flat primary colours arranged around a black area that represented water. That was okay, I liked that one and it went well with the walls, although it clashes horribly with the walls in the house I have now so I’ve had to hide it away.

The other was a kind of abstract landscape. Standing back, you were supposed to get a Welsh lake with hills and sheep seen from a window on a rainy day, all made with tiny splodges of colour laid on in half-inch squares with a palette knife. To make it look wetter, I gave it about fifteen coats of spray varnish, most of which got on the Etruscan wall and made it sticky around where the painting was.

The stately home had acquired an architect, and he came over with his German wife one day and I invited them to join me in my flat, which was the only habitable place left in the house where there was a sofa and a kettle. Before I could offer them tea, the architect’s wife took a long look at my big landscape and asked me straight out, how much did I want for it? (Germans are like that.)

Not being an artist, I didn’t know. How much is a painting worth? It was about 20 square feet, so what, £20 a square foot? How should I know?

So she took the painting away with her, leaving a sticky oblong of varnish around the bare area of Etruscan villa where the memory of the painting still hung, and told me to let her know how much I wanted when I had figured something out, because she didn’t know either.

About a week later she returned, carrying a box. I still don’t know how much to give for the painting, she said. But you are musical, I know, so would this be enough? I have had it for thirty years but I never learned to play it. And inside the box was an alto saxophone. It was better than money, so I said yes, that was exactly it.

That night in the garden I puffed and honked and hooted and wheezed, but it was no good. I could squeeze only one note out of the saxophone. I was never going to be Charlie Parker, who squeezed so many. So I booked a lesson with a local saxophone teacher. But before I could get to the lesson, my daughter came to visit.

My daughter is quite musical, a flute player, Grade 8 or something. Of course, there are thousands of competent young lady flute players as it is the only instrument they still teach in schools, ten minutes a week, so parents are driven to pay for private lessons and they all get quite good, and there is limited demand for flute players. Being good at playing the flute wasn’t going to help her a lot in life, not as much as finding a boyfriend with a job.

Anyway, I never got the saxophone back. But I reckon it was worth about £400 in cash terms, which is pretty much what I would have asked for the painting if I hadn’t secretly known (but couldn’t tell the architect’s wife) the really important thing, that it only took me four hours to paint, using old housepaints on a cheap canvas.

But I like to think it was art.

And thinking that surely makes me an artist, by any definition.


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