The Truth About Confessional Art

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(adapted from a post that originally appeared 18 months ago at Year Zero Writers, and posted now in response to a point raised on The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize review of The Dead Beatdownload The Dead Beat for free here)

First, I want to give a working definition. By confessional art, I include the kind of autobiography I’ve given above, that kind of plonking the thoughts out raw that Emin is so good at. But it’s more than that. Like the early stories that first gave me my life back, it’s about confession in the truest sense – about the need to get things from out of your head and into the world – and that doesn’t always mean simply recounting.

It means telling the absolute truth. But the absolute truth in question, because this is about you, is YOUR truth. It’s whatever form that inner life takes. It’s about taking that inner life, that absolute and personal truth, in the form it presents itself to you, and replicating it in the world.

I want to make three simple points. That’s all. First, I want to say why confessional art is important for the artist. Second, I want to explain why I think it provokes such outrage. And third, I want to explain why its value is more universal than any other form of art.

Why does confessional art matter? Well, literally, it is a matter of life and death. Sometimes it fails. Sometimes a person can tell and tell but the noise in their head is so loud it kills them anyway – history is full of that – Plath and Cobain to start. And it’s given rise to something that’s not just a myth but is plain the opposite of true. There’s a story that creative types are prone to mental illness and self-harm. That is, in technical parlance, bollocks. The fact they are able to take what’s inside them, eating them up, and express it, offers, if anything, the chance of survival that many non-creative types with such thoughts never get. It’s just that those poor sods don’t leave their story behind, so they’re as forgotten in death as they often were in life.

Why does confessional art save lives? It’s not about catharsis or redemption. It’s more basic and brutal. It’s the closest you can get when the pressure in your head is at bursting to taking a knife and cutting out a chunk of your skull to make the noise bearable. That’s my experience of it anyway – you may well have a different one. The point is that because it’s about taking out what’s in your head, the more you fabricate, the more you elaborate, the less effective it will be. Your only option is to take whatever’s there, and lay it out as you find it. and that’s why people who rail against confessional art, however understandable their motive, well, I’m not going to say it – you do the math.

In other words, when people say “ah but that’s not confessional, it’s a novel”, they’re not necessarily right. The only person who knows if a piece is confessional is the artist.

Why DO people respond so strongly, whether it be “get out of my face” or “that’s not art”?

It’s part that confessional art crosses a line. It says in public what people believe should be kept private. It’s self-absorbed. I have a feeling that every single criticism boils down to this – confessional art is about the artist and no one else, and people just don’t think that’s right.

And they’re absolutely wrong to criticise.

Not just because for the artist, confessional art is a matter of life and death, but because, and this is point three, confessional art does what “true art” was always meant to do in a way no other art can.

Art is meant to convey universals, to unite, to draw commonalities and connections. I want to contend that it is only the absolutely individual nature of confessional art that can achieve this.

Why? OK, consider this. If we set out to examine themes, questions, issues that connect us to others, what are our tools? We attempt to describe those aspects of life, nature, the human condition that we share.

Only we don’t really share anything with any other human beings – sure, there are similarities, there are resemblances, there are those things close enough that to enable us to get through everyday life, or to evolve, we can lump together, but such lumping is artifice. Any attempt to convey commonality actually does nothing but emphasise our lack of it. There is no Gen X experience, no bipolar experience. Talking as though there is just creates lies, and distance.

But when we strip away the pretence of commonality and focus on nothing but the absolute truth of our individuality, on the simple perceptions that stream through our heads, on the pre-cognitive scream inside us, we zoom in total clarity on the one thing that DOES bind us – whatever its content that indescribable, inarticulable scream is the one thing we all share.

The taste of MY tea in the morning; the feel of the stick smacking MY leg; the scrape of noise and sweet-smelling leering taunting sicked-up squeaking fingernails inside my skull. The endless minutiae of the moment the first one of them looked me in the face and killed whatever was inside me. THAT is the universal. Tell me why you’re like me and you build a wall. Tell me only about you and maybe you’ll knock it down. As artists we can only seek somehow to recreate externally the internal shriek that is the only truth of being human.

And I have a feeling it’s being confronted with that truth, one they’ve spent their lives concealing, that makes people so uneasy about confessional art. It has always been the case. Confessional art comes in a long tradition that goes back at least as far as the ecstatic mystics, influenced by the shattered mirror of Neoplatonism (the opponents come from an opposing strand of Neoplatonism, for which the mirror unifies – in one case emanation, in the other return), with their dark nights of the soul and personalised utterances. They made those around them just as uncomfortable as Tracey Emin’s bed ever made anyone.

Any lessons to be learned? Sure. For the artist – as with so many things, stop analysing and do. For the audience – every time you tell someone they’re a fake, there’s a context. There are implications. Feel free to remove your faces from my art, but I will not remove my art from your face. Because that scream is the only hope we have of emerging from behind our comfortable, facile, mechanical intellectualism.

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8 Responses to The Truth About Confessional Art

  1. Chila Woychik says:

    “Feel free to remove your faces from my art, but I will not remove my art from your face. Because a scream is the only hope we have of emerging from behind our comfortable, facile, mechanical intellectualism.”

    I love that, Dan, and totally agree with what you’re saying here. Yes, confessional art is cathartic, but it’s so much more than that too – it the thing that binds us together as human beings. And that is so essential in squeezing a drop or two of meaning out of this life, something I think we all tend to do at various places along our journey. Maybe Kurt and Sylvia didn’t have that, but I sure the hell wish they would have.

  2. danholloway says:

    thank you. What binds us together – exactly

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