I HAVE to tell you Something: the Truth about Confessional Art
“Maybe there is no way to leave the world a better place, and the only thing left to do is tell the truth” Daisy Anne Gree
First of all, huge thanks to everyone who gave suggestions and questions on my preliminary post last weekend. I hope I address your concerns, if not give you the answers you wanted – where I have failed in either respect, feel free to haul me up on it.
[NB I realise I have reached the end and said not a word on the subject either of Foucault or the medieval penance manuals that I’d intended to make the focus of the piece. Maybe there will be time in the comments but consider as a footnote: what is it that confession has always given, and why were confession manuals produced to accompany it, reminding us of the specific details of sins? Is the language of penance and salvation actually a metaphor for the life or death need to externalise I will talk about? Is the endless detail and expansion of the penance manuals an early recognition of the absolute importance of subjectivity, specificity, particularity? With Foucault, do we in the confession process hand power of life and death to the embodied external [the You who MUST listen if we are not to die?] Contra Foucault, is it not just the You who holds the power of withholding ears/salvation, but the I who manifests the power of their own subjectivity and therefore existence in commanding an audience?]
When I was 15, there was a period of about 3 months when I didn’t talk to a single person. Not a teacher, not a schoolmate, not a parent. I’m not sure anyone could have known why – I was, at least in those middling years, a sullen teenager, who’d cultivated the art of answering every question with a grunt, and retreating to his own mind, which I found infinitely more interesting than anything around me. So it would have taken telepathy for even my parents to realise what was going on in my head in response to the fact that every one of the 10 or so really good friends I had at school cut me off overnight, not only not speaking to me but avoiding me in the street, making sure to jeer loudly when any of the “popular kids” was around, and generally smacking me up whenever the teacher wasn’t looking, and sometimes when the sportier teachers, who also played the game, were. All because of a weird story about me someone (I still don’t know who) had made up for the hell of it.
What was going on in my head morphed. It started with, in the words of Freakshow, and even though the incident hadn’t happened, “a nightly Columbine zoetrope tamazepam blur, rejubilant slur, infinite whir, sleep now smack-rush joy lie there the deserving dead and never stir”. For about a month I thought about nothing but getting a machine gun and mowing everyone in school into the ground. It’s something I’d fantasised about for years beforehand on and off, and would do on and off again for the rest of my teenage years. It would be disingenuous of me to say there is any part of me that would be sorry if those former schoolmates endured a painful end, except the part of me that would have to watch the endless eulogies of their so-called sainted lives (but when we recognise that absolute truth is individual truth, we have to acknowledge the truth of those who mourn is just as real as that of those who rejoice, and even accept that they will never see it the same).
After a while those fantasies stopped. I realised they were futile, and it was much easier just to think about killing one person, myself. Half the time I thought about how. That was the rational half. The rest of the time the noise in my head was so loud, so hideous, so painful, scraping the inside of my skull, beating to get out, I found the only way to get rid of it was to use a piece of wood I’d picked up at a hardware store, and batter the back of my leg until I had bruises on bruises on bruises and the pain of that was almost enough to distract me.
And then one day, and I have no idea why, I picked up a pen and started writing about it – not in diary form, but in the form of stories, fictionalisations, fantasies, poems, things that seemingly bore no resemblance. And since then, as long as I have been able to carry on writing, there have been periods of up to weeks at a time when I haven’t thought about killing myself.
So. Are you all sitting comfortably now? Probably not, I’d guess.
And WHY you’re not feeling comfortable, those of you who aren’t, and a couple of other points arising from this happy reminiscence, is the subject of this piece. It’s about “confessional art”, that hugely misunderstood term that we all associate with Tracey Emin (she is, after all, Professor of Confessional Art).
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 lokoed 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.
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. For the would-be censors – as I said in my original post, feel free to remove your faces from my art, but I will not remove my art from your face.