The ultimate struggling artist: Guardian article about Benjamin R Haydon

Came across this book review in the Guardian:

Wrong artist, wrong time, wrong place” review about “A Genius for Failure: The Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon” by Paul O’Keeffe (Review by Andrew Motion)

It’s not so much the book I’m interested in as the review itself spoke quite a bit about Haydon, who was an artist that crossed paths with early 19th century English painters and politicians, and he was a friend of Wordsworth and even did a portrait of the poet. But it seems, from the article, that his failure stemmed from a desire for glory in art that blinded him from using the real talents he’d possessed.

For example, he seemed to have a talent for doing portraits, but instead chose to strive for “large canvases which told historical and biblical narratives”. But this involved long periods of no income, and unless the paintings were really good, they simply wouldn’t pay off. By the end of his life Haydon had been in prison four times for debt and he ended up taking his own life.

As Andrew Motion puts it: “Misapplied energy, lack of self-knowledge and vaingloriousness first sapped, then corrupted the energy and devotion to high ideals that he had shown in his early years. They also distracted attention from the things he really did do well, even if he didn’t value them: writing a great journal, painting a few good portraits…”

I guess, as a ‘struggling artist’ and a ‘struggling muso’, it’s important to explore your talents and find out what works best. It’s easy to become distracted by ‘ideals of glory’ -and Haydon was no different to many of us today. He aspired to be “the British Raphael”, but that was like putting a square peg in a round hole… In the modern age we may aspire to be the next Pearl Jam, or Britney Spears, or Joe Satriani or a great writer or director etc… It’s fine to be inspired by your idols, but if you have expectations to become like them, or as great as them, you could be setting yourself up for major disappointment.

But we’re lucky the internet allows for a world of niches, so you have to find your niche and your expertise, and this isn’t necessarily easy. And it involves humbling yourself, accepting things about your art and skills that you may not want to accept.

Throughout my twenties I placed all my hope and desire music-wise on being in a band. That’s what I wanted to be -a guitarist in a band. I wanted to be like my idols -Nirvana, Pearljam and The Clash, … and I wanted to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix… I was in a band (Rhombic Void) but nothing eventuated -we never made it beyond ‘serious hobby’ status.

So we broke up -which was a good and necessary, because looking back on it, we couldn’t have succeeded for several reasons. But if someone had told me back then “this can’t work” I wouldn’t have listened.

I still enjoy doing music, but I know I can’t place all my eggs in one basket the way Haydon did -I’m also backing myself up with a trade qualification.

It’s good to come face to face with yourself. One of the problems with modern maxims tossed around by marketing gurus and entertainment industry self-help books is “you gotta believe in yourself. Don’t give up until you reach the top”. Not necessarily bad advice, but it’s got to be clarified… There’s another saying my auntie used to tell me: “Know Thyself”.

This is why I discussed the “karate tournament” idea -when you compete in a tournament you really get to face yourself by facing opponents. It doesn’t have to be Karate, it can be any sport, but if you want to be a champion, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.

I went into a martial arts tournament once but just for fun -I didn’t get past the first round, so it was a waste, right? Wrong. I found out about myself -that is, how unhealthy I was, because I was puffing after the first few minutes. It was revealing to me how unfit I actually was and encouraging me to take my fitness more seriously. I wasn’t trying to be champion, just learn something.

But the problem with producing art and culture, it’s harder to accept feedback and failure, and easier to delude yourself. In sports you get beaten, you can either make excuses or you can examine your weaknesses and train accordingly.

But if you want to make money from your music/art/writing, let alone be a champion, then you need to learn more about yourself. Haydon failed to learn these lessons and use his real talents to the best of his ability. It’s too easy to blind yourself, to fail to see where your weaknesses are because art is more subjective and abstract.

Furthermore, getting feedback about our art can hurt our egos, which often gets deeply tied to our own self image as a ‘great artist/musician’ etc…You’re not a rock star until you’re a rock star, just like you’re not a tennis champion until you’re won a grand slam. People who haven’t even made it into a professional tennis circuit don’t go walking round like they’re Federer or Serena Williams, why go walking around like you’re a popstar when you’re not?

You have to start at the bottom. So for a struggling muso, that could mean putting you’re songs out their on Youtube and gauging the feedback and how popular they become, or joining in a social networking site that allows musicians to give feedback with each other. But you don’t have to accept everything -someone may say your song isn’t ‘pop’ enough, but you aren’t trying to be ‘pop’ anyway, -so of course you need to take things with a pinch of salt. Consider who is giving feedback, and gauge things from the stats on webesites as well.

Or test yourself at open mic-nights if you’re a songwriter -just the experience of getting up on a stage, even if it’s in front of three people, is a good learning experience.

Also, try to find what people like about your music -maybe they like your singing, but don’t like the actually song -that may mean you should team up with a songwriter -and vice-versa, your song’s good but your singing can’t let it shine… Or you’re really a good guitarist -then focus on that. Or you’re a boring guitarist -cut short the solos and let the song shine through.

Try different things, different genres, different instruments, and look for the feedback on something like Youtube. You may hit on something that inspires people.

I wonder how Hayden’s life might have turned out if he realized his strength was portraits and he just honed in on that -he might’ve made a decent living and painted many more famous people.


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