Art, Time and Money

Nocturne in Blue and Gold by James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne in Blue and Gold (The Falling Rocket) 1874 by James McNeill Whistler

I am always muttering about life getting in the way of making art, and I have a disturbing tendency to view most things that happen during daytime hours as an unwarranted intrusion on my work time. Of course, it’s not really unwarranted intrusion at all; it’s simply normal life and without it I wouldn’t have any basis for making art.

So I have to remind myself regularly that it is the norm, and not the exception, to plan a week of uninterrupted art-work and then to find it interrupted throughout by life-work and family-work and community-work, most of which is imposed from without and non-negotiable.

My solution has long been to work rapidly and seize the hours as they present. Through a constant background of enough hours spent drawing and writing and small works, I can work relatively quickly on final pieces to meet deadlines and deliver works for exhibition. Sometimes, though, I look back and literally wonder how it has all happened.

One of my gripes with society at large is that too much of a premium is put on time spent on something, regardless of whether it is time spent efficiently or productively. One of the questions I am asked occasionally is “How long did that take you?” I never quite know how to respond. How long did I spend thinking through the original idea, and playing around with it? Maybe it was an idea lurking for years, and worked on on a number of occasions. All that was part of ‘it’. The actual execution time may, however, have been very quick. How quick? Well, how quick is quick? Isn’t it a relative concept? A 10 second ink drawing executed after 50 other ink drawings is ‘quick’ by anyone’s standards, but it can’t be seen in those terms. It is only possible to do precisely because of all the other hours spent doing ink drawings.

I was reflecting on this a few days ago amidst the furore of BBC Look North joking about 5 minute artworks. Much great work is wonderful precisely because of its effortless appearance, and the uninitiated outsider may not always recognise it is the culmination of a great deal of hard work. One of the most enlightening public observations on the subject was actually made well over a century ago by James McNeill Whistler in a High Court libel case. He brought the case against John Ruskin in 1878. Ruskin had attacked Whistler’s asking for 200 guineas for ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s place’. The excerpt below comes from Nineteenth Century European Art by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu. The whole piece is a remarkably entertaining piece of Victorian theatre!

Holker: “What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?”
Whistler: “It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens.”
Holker: “Not a view of Cremorne?”
Whistler: “If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne….”
Holker: “Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?”
Whistler: “Oh, I ‘knock one off’ possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it…” [the painting measures 24 3/4 x 18 3/8 inches]
Holker: “The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?”
Whistler: “No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

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