When You’re an Artist, Every Night is Drag Night

  Alistair Gentry  
  London, UK  

October 2019

There’s a pervasive myth about artists, not least among some artists themselves, that being woolly, unfocused and making art for art’s sake is somehow the truest and purest path.

If you want to stay pure and piddle around making art mainly for yourself and to universal indifference from the rest of the world, that’s up to you: whatever blows your skirt up. To keep on following my vocation as an artist I’ve had to forgo purity and get dirty. I’m not talking about taking Sackler opiates cash or Zabludowicz arms dealing money kind of foulness (pro tip: that dirt is actually scabby blood!) or the moral vacuum of artist-milking vanity “galleries”. A little bit of mercenary filthiness does you good as an artist, though. From experience I know that if you apply to a normal workplace and tell them you’re an artist who needs a day job you get very short shrift, though this is how most artists sustain their practice. What career desk monkeys don’t get is that to be moderately successful and stay afloat, Kate Winslett-esque, on one of the few buoyant pieces of art world wreckage, I have to be not just creative, competent and reliably deliver as an artist, but also a flawless one-man financial department, a methodical fundraiser, a laser-focused producer, able to manage my own time and workplace wellbeing, and (I know, gross) a tireless entrepreneur, agent and advocate for my own work. My customer service skills are better than half the people I deal with in actual public-facing jobs; as an artist I can say or do the same thing a hundred times a day and never make the person I’m dealing with feel like it’s boring me, because it genuinely doesn’t and I don’t think I’m better than them.

I also have to be resigned to watching multiple Leonardo DiCaprios slide off and drown right beside me even though they’re really good at drawing French girls. If you’ve been holding down a job alongside being an artist, if you haven’t given up within two or three years of graduating, if you’ve got a show or a commission even once a year, don’t let anyone tell you artists aren’t good for anything in the real world. You have more and better transferable skills than anybody who’s been sitting in the same office for the last decade. There are probably few or no artists who went into art because they enjoyed doing invoices, filling in forms, or zero hours supermarket shift work, but it’s competence at this boring stuff that enables us to be artists, more or less in the way that we want to be. In ideal situations the people who work for arts organisations and galleries take a lot of this work off our hands because it’s their job, but every artist reading this has probably already snorted cynically at the thought of how rarely this is actually the case.

I’ve worked hard (not been lucky, getting them is bloody difficult and massively competitive) to take part in quite a lot of good artist residencies over the years. This means I was professionally engaged, on a contract and paid. When you pay for your own “artist residency”, get real, that’s just a holiday you’re buying from somebody who has the arrogance and cheek to curate their customers. As with everything else apart from genuine pro bono work that actually makes the world a better place or helps somebody who needs it: no fee, no me. I know I always digress adorably, but I do digress. My point is that artists get things like residencies and teaching posts because they have huge reserves of transferable knowledge and skills that absolutely nobody else has, at least not in the same broad, multidisciplinary way. They often have to wear a kind of institutional drag to do it– look and sound a bit more sensible than they probably are at heart– because they’re always proving themselves in these environments. Being reasonable and having a mask of professionalism that you either wear or wears you is how you succeed in positively unleashing the irrational and the artistic on an institution, and working on a scale you probably wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Every successful artist is sort of in cosplay or drag as themselves anyway, because of the need for a real artist (as opposed to a dabbler or an amateur) to share and be open; not just to face inward even though I think most artists are fundamentally introverted and contemplative. I’m an introspective, anti-social performance artist whose work is all about talking to people, which is just ridiculous. Am I an artist who dreamed they were an artist statement, or an artist statement who dreamed they were an artist?

These things can also flow back in the other direction. My current residency at The Open Data Institute is an incredibly creative environment that happens to mostly not be about art. It’s also a physical space that is full of commissioned and curated actual art, via their Data as Culture programme. The worst thing for me as a commissioned artist or an artist in residence is always to be allocated a corner and left alone to get on with it, when what is best for both sides is to get in up to the elbow as quickly as possible. And if that sounds to you like something either from a grotty farmyard or a niche porn site, that’s fine. Dirty is the theme here. Artists are very rarely at the table when decisions are made about anything, including ourselves, but maybe this is because more artists need to sometimes put on the mask of mainstream working culture. Have a go at turning up for your own work and being on time for things, and doing them well. Artists are incredibly bad for lack of punctuality and for leaving stuff until the last moment. They seem to pride themselves on being tardy and inept. With the toxic romanticism that still swirls around the notion of artists being egocentric, self-destructive and ungovernable, perhaps the most radical thing an artist can do is to be at the same time useful, functional, wildly creative, subversive and not fucked up. Look clean, so you can be really filthy.  s

  Alistair Gentry is a writer, artist and performer.
According to a passing stranger who recently shouted out of a car window, he is also a fucking weirdo.
He is based, divides his time and works.



This interview features in the Spring/Summer 2019 edition of the Sluice magazine.

The next Alistair Gentry column will appear in the Autumn/Winter edition of the Sluice magazine, available from early December. Subscribe or buy via the link below.