Renegade Saints

February 26, 2010


Sacred space – photograph by Liz Mathews

Although I invoked Virginia Woolf as one of my literary patrons, writers aren’t usually portrayed as saints, nor in general anxious to be regarded as such. (Was it Yeats who declined to be a genius at breakfast – presumably a saint would be even harder?) Yet Gertrude Stein was, by her own definition, a saint, merely because she was an artist. As Judy Grahn explains in Really Reading Gertrude Stein, she meant by this strange claim that ‘artists bear the same focus of leadership and shamanistic interpretation of the cosmos to human perceptions, in our age, as saints did for their societies in the Middle Ages’.

Suddenly, this canonises a whole ragged company of interpreters, map-makers, path-finders and outsiders; writers, artists, makers of all kinds. Just as the ancient saints could be recognised in the whole spectrum from smelly eccentrics or hermits enskied on columns, lion-taming monks or inspired scribes, to female knights, child crusaders, cross-dressing princesses or healing cadavers – so the contemporary saints would be a motley lot. The only attribute required to be one of Stein’s community of saints is a passionate belief in the practice of art, a faith in its power to interpret all that we need to know of the human place in the universe. (This brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s strange assertion that ‘good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings’.)

For a moment, it’s irresistable to imagine this multi-cult world, where saints of diverse kinds perform their everyday miracles. The artist-shamans are dedicated to their work, their magical access to other dimensions, which is both privilege and hardship, is only one element of their holy craft, together with the inspiration which may descend on them, and the unique way of seeing which each one separately cultivates and seeks to communicate. There’s no heresy, no dogma, no hierarchy, no inquisition…

Strangely, the artist’s special status – if not exactly saintly, at least other-worldly – is often recognised, still, though sometimes in strange ways. The rage which some people feel (especially artists’ families) at their effrontery in trying to ‘set themselves up’ is a back-handed recognition that they are attempting something different, better. The alternative life which is always expected of artists is a version of the hermit’s or knight’s vocation, just as the clichés of ‘starving in a garret’ refer to the artist’s dedication to integrity rather than money. All these unsophisticated pictures may stem from a 19thC literary myth of Bohemian life on the margins, but they still have a currency which isn’t entirely daft; there are many of us who don’t put money first, who do feel a commitment to our work which would seem religious in another context. And many of us have lives which are far from conventional.

These vague sketches of what artists are probably like have now been joined by the concept of the other kind of artist, who is not on the margins at all but a celebrity and very very rich. There is, in theory, no reason why such a figure should not be a ‘saint’, any more than there is any guarantee that the bohemian in the garret will be one. It’s just much more difficult.

We latter-day saints face constant temptations of a kind our earlier patrons barely glimpsed, as they eschewed publicity which didn’t relate directly to their work, or finally agreed to give a radio talk, only on their own subject. We have the demon-whisperings to pursue celebrity (‘Get your fifteen minutes here!’), compromise true work with currently fashionable alterations, abandon our craft as too obscure, squander or prostitute our gift for gain or publication or recognition. Often these vast betrayals are disguised as unusual career opportunities, necessary evils, normal practice nowadays.

There’s a danger for every artist – in whatever medium, of whatever fame – of the Fall, of becoming a pseudo-artist producing bogus art – a renegade saint. For the artist’s special and necessary function within society (call it sainthood, for poetry’s sake) can only be performed passionately, with utter conviction and absolute dedication, whatever form the resulting work may take. It’s essential that we shouldn’t be mocked or pressured into accepting something less as inevitable, or fail to resist corruption by parasites or seduction by false idols. To undertake this, we must also decode the confused messages of despair in creation and reject them as futile, unfruitful. For if the interpreters loose their vision, what hope is there for those who look to them for illumination?

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