Gilles stands there in his bright white clown suit wearing shoes with pink ribbons. He’s looking ahead, not smiling, but not running away either. He has a job to do, a life to live, a person to be. And, whatever he may be feeling inside, he presents himself to the world, ready for whatever life is about to throw at him, with his straw hat tilted back, hands at his sides. There he is, an ordinary hero, in the moment before the rotten eggs hit his spotless suit.
I call him Gilles, the name by which he has long been known, although the Louvre, which owns this painting by Antoine Watteau, now simply calls it Pierrot, the clownish character from the Commedia dell’arte. Other characters from this stylised form of Italian theatre gather behind Gilles, who is raised on a kind of earthen stage. It adds to the sense that Gilles is on his own, separated from the crowd by his sensitivity and self-consciousness.
If you want inspirational art, I could show you paintings that call for revolution, or promise a new heaven and a new earth, or even raise the dead. If you want a utopia, try Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, the spiralling, Tower of Babel-like structure he unveiled in 1920 to symbolise revolutionary hope. Or there are Christian visions of renewal and eternal life such as Mattias Grunewald’s Resurrection, with its revelatory burst of colour that looks both psychedelic and somehow psychotic. And for the ultimate image of success against all the odds, there is Caravaggio’s Raising of Lazarus.
Yet I find art’s more extreme images of belief and hope not so much inspiring as terrifying. Gilles moves me precisely because he is not a zealot, nor a warrior on horseback, nor a martyr dying in agony, nor any of the other images of murder and suicide that have been offered as “inspirations” by artists in the service of state or church. He is just a person trying to be himself, whoever that is, and his delicate mixture of placidity and soulfulness, confusion and calm, is an image of how to be human in the actual world we inhabit with all its mystery, play-acting and comedy.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a song, a film, a poem or a painting. All works of art have the power – if they are soulful or profound or just very funny – to fill you with energy, optimism, hope and zest. Aristotle, the first person to think seriously about art’s purpose, claimed that watching a tragedy was a “cleansing”, a catharsis that purified your soul. So seeing the stage covered in bodies at the end of Hamlet is the best emotional detox you can have.
This is what makes art so much more valuable than some inspirational video or self-help book. It does not feed us fake remedies for life’s ills. Instead, it speaks to our innermost selves in a way we recognise as true. What it tells us is that other people feel like we do, that we are not alone. “He was despised and rejected of men,” goes the line in Handel’s Messiah, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” It is one of the most inspiring of all musical uplifts – and it works by accepting and transcending pain, rather than denying it. All kinds of art can provide the inspiration we need, and it is a sustenance like no other. It might be Leonard Cohen’s singing about tea and oranges in Suzanne. It might be the catharsis of Ramsay the sadist getting eaten by his own dogs in Game of Thrones. Or it might be a rococo painting of an introspective clown.
Watteau did not paint this oddly inspiring image by chance. It reflects his belief that clowns and lovers are the true heroes of life. This spectacularly gifted artist was born in 1684 in the France of Louis XIV. His early paintings are sombre records of the suffering caused by the wars The Sun King fought to assert his glory. The art favoured by Louis was grandiose and serious. Watteau led a rebellion against this pomp, creating a fantasy world that is the opposite of pious or militaristic. Instead of battles, he depicted picnics: his art says life is meant to be enjoyed. In this, Watteau looked ahead to the 18th century and the Enlightenment, which rejected religion and put its faith in science and reason.
In 1776, the ideals of the Enlightenment were enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, entitling everyone to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Watteau was dead by then, but his paintings of young men and women seducing each other in sensually soft woodlands are manifestos for these rights.
He even painted a utopia, to stand against all art’s Last Judgments. The Embarkation for Cythera shows the start of a pilgrimage of love. On a green shore fluffed by delicate foliage, lovers holding flowery staffs are pairing off and heading for a boat to take them to the island of the sex god Venus. These pilgrims do not worship God, and the sea in the background is like a lake of perfume, swathed in clouds of candy-floss mist. If you know what life is worth, Watteau is saying, you will look for heaven on earth. Gilles may not be much of a fighter, but he stands up for one thing: his right to be himself.
‘This taught me to value the everyday’
Philosopher Alain de Botton on Chardin’s Woman Taking Tea
If images in advertising carry a lot of the blame for instilling a kind of sickness in our souls, then the work created by artists can reconcile us with reality and reawaken us to the genuine – but too easily forgotten – value of our lives. Consider Chardin’s painting Woman Taking Tea. The sitter’s dress might be a bit more elaborate than is normal today, but the painted table, teapot, chair, spoon and cup could all be picked up at a flea market. The room is studiously plain. And yet the picture is glamorous – it makes this ordinary occasion and the simple furnishings seductive. It invites the beholder to go home and create their own live version. The glamour is not a false sheen that pretends something lovely is going on when it isn’t. Chardin recognises the worth of a modest moment and marshals his genius to bring its qualities to our notice.
Art can teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavour to make the best of our circumstances: a job we do not always love, the imperfections of age, frustrated ambitions and our attempts to stay loyal to irritable but loved families. Art can do the opposite of glamourise the unattainable: it can show us anew the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it. It is advertising for the things we really need.
One of our major flaws as animals, and a big contributor to our unhappiness, is that we are very bad at keeping in mind the real ingredients of fulfilment. We lose sight of the value of almost everything that is readily to hand; we’re deeply ungrateful towards anything that is free or doesn’t cost very much; we trust in the value of objects more than ideas or feelings; we are sluggish in remembering to love and to care; and we are prone to racing through the years forgetting the wonder, fragility and beauty of existence. It’s fortunate, therefore, that we have art.
- Alain de Botton’s novel The Course of Love is out now.
‘Her work gives me courage’
Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist on Etel Adnan
In the past year, I have been constantly inspired by Etel Adnan, a polymath whose work crosses many dimensions: cartographies, drawings, films, notebooks, novels, paintings, plays, poems, political journalism, tapestry, teaching and, most recently, landscapes painted on to screens that can be folded or extended in space like free-standing drawings.
She was born in 1925 in Beirut. In the late 1950s, she taught philosophy at the University of California and started to paint. Her earliest works were abstract compositions with squares of colours directly applied from the tube. A red square was often the pivotal point of the composition. She was – is – interested in the immediate beauty of colour.
In 1964, Adnan discovered Japanese leporellos, folded books in which she could mix drawing with writing and poetry. She developed her writing across many forms – reportage, plays, fiction – including her masterpiece, that great novel of the Lebanese civil war: Sitt Marie Rose (1978). She became one of the world’s leading political writers as well as a protagonist of the peace movement.
She is a great inspiration to many. Although she is now in her early 90s, her art still has energy, optimism and intensity, and remains among the best work being created in the world today. It gives me courage. It reminds me of what Gerhard Richter once said: “Art is the highest form of hope.”
Often, notably in her outstanding poetry collections Sea and Fog (2012) and Seasons (2008), natural and meteorological phenomena are presented as hyper-objects – non-tangible things that imperceptibly influence and transform our skins and souls. When I asked her to write a Post-It for my Instagram project, Adnan wrote: “The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.” These words seem particularly urgent for 2017.
‘The moment I see this, it makes me laugh too’
Writer Ali Smith: Nan Goldin’s photo of Cookie Mueller laughing
First, it’s the delight of someone else’s helpless mirth. It’s one of the most infectious pictures of someone laughing I’ve ever seen. The moment I see it, it makes me laugh too. Then, it’s a really stunning portrait as well as a really stunning photograph. Its subject is the photographer’s friend, the wise, witty and anarchic writer and actress Cookie Mueller. The picture makes something communal happen, it shares the friendship. But the energy’s in the mirth: it’s like Mueller is the light source; the grey nothingness of the wall lights up round her head and that stray wire runs off to the side, electric, connective, upwards. Her rings and bangles shine like little shackles, but she’s laughing like anything.
“Happiness is a fictitious feeling,” Mueller wrote in her mini-essay Fleeting Happiness. “It was created by imaginative storytellers for the purpose of plot-builders or story resolution. Fortunately most people don’t know this. They think the lives they are living are actual screen plays or theatre pieces … Because of this, I have seen people stop in their tracks for a moment and wonder what the plot is, but mostly they just forge on blindly.”
The picture’s about the opposite of blindness; Goldin’s pictures are always about how we see as well as how we’re seen. The beauty and the intimacy in her work rise out of her eye for what’s true, which is the reason she’s the great photographic artist she is – one of the greatest ever. She never compromises; she never sells what she sees short; Goldin’s aesthetic is unadorned, unsentimental but open, and forgiving and revelatory precisely because of its mercilessness. This picture of her dear friend Cookie with her eyes laughingly shut sees for her and sees her, a source of life, warmth, laughter and energy in a bare-looking non-place. That’s the spirit.
- Ali Smith’s novel Autumn is out now.
‘I can feel the sea breezes and smell the pine sap’
Musician Natasha Khan on Frances Gearhart’s colour block prints
Whenever I feel sad or in need of transportation, I look to nature. If I can, I escape to some woodlands, the sea, craggy cliffs, red mountains or pastel sunsets. Landscape has been a friend and inspiration to me all my life, from the time I studied the flower fairy books as a child, to making videos in ET-style forests, dancing on beaches or singing in deserts.
I have loved many painters, ever since I thought I wanted to be one as a little girl: Frida Kahlo, Egon Schiele, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hilma af Klint, Helen Frankenthaler. But there is an artist who gives me both my nature fix and a spiritual boost. She is a printmaker and watercolorist named Frances Gearhart. She belonged to an incredible group of American colour block print artists who were all part of the arts and crafts movement of the early 20th century.
This ancient technique originally came from Japan, but these artists focused especially on my favourite place in the world: California’s coast and mountains, a part of America I have visited countless times in the past 15 years. These landscapes hold ancient stories for me. Gearhart seems to scatter mythological deities into her colour palettes. I can feel the sea breezes, smell the pine sap, hear the folklore and ghost songs held in these scenes.
These artists inform a lot of music for me, inspire lyrics, help create film scenes, colour ideas and travel plans. Trees, mountains, seascapes and untrodden paths are things that will inspire me for the rest of my life. The redemptive power of nature moves through most of the work I make.
I decided to take a Japanese woodblock course earlier this year, to try to emulate this special craft. I couldn’t believe how difficult it was and how patient you have to be – and how much my hand would hurt after hours of chiselling away at wood and rolling on layers of ink. I had to create three separate blocks for each colour, and try to understand light, shadow and texture within that process. It also gave me a small inkling of the kind of meditative reflection it takes to achieve this level of artistry.
In a world that is so all-consuming and chaotic, I feel that the most beautiful thing about Gearhart’s work is the hours of methodical dedication it would have taken her to create just one piece. It’s an ancient craft, but also perhaps a philosophy of life that is in danger of being lost. The patient adoration of an artist for her greatest love, nature – Gearhart’s a girl after my own heart!
‘Marina showed unimaginable courage’
Author Eimear McBride picks Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0
It might seem strange to choose a work of performance art created before I was born, but the knowledge of it having existed has, for years, exerted a powerful influence on my thoughts about the distance between the artist and the audience. It worked as follows. Abramović laid out 72 objects with an explanatory note reading:
There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.
Duration: 6 hours (8pm–2am)”
Then she stood passively in the room. The audience were initially kind, handing her the rose and kissing her. As time went on, and her impassivity began to infuriate them, they progressed to slicing her clothes off with the razor blades, then slicing her skin with them. She was molested and a fight broke out when an audience member held a loaded gun to her head. When the performance finished and Abramović began to move, the audience, unable to face the human being, apparently fled. I wonder how many people left their home that morning planning to insert thorns into a woman’s stomach, or to stand by and watch while someone else did?
I’ve only read about, or seen photos of, Rhythm 0. But the fact that it ever was, that Abramović had the unimaginable courage to go through with it, is inspiring – it’s a masterclass in artistic integrity. What the work itself confronted – what happens when we cease to feel personally responsible for our actions; how we permit ourselves to behave towards those we perceive to be under our control; and the degree, and rapidity, with which we divest each other of humanity is thought-provoking, unpalatable, terrifying. In other words: very important art.
- Eimear McBride’s novel The Lesser Bohemians is out now.