"You think and talk all the time about the artist ... What of the people, the working class, whom he should serve? I believe in the greatest potentiality of their talent and understanding. But I cannot serve like a waiter." (From John Berger's novel A Painter Of Our Time)
A number of mostly laudatory pieces have emerged in the wake of John Berger's death, the linked article being one of them. I picked up Ways Of Seeing after reading Berger's obit, and while its explicitly political methodology for interpreting art has become pretty standard fare, the way Berger and his colleagues expressed it then had a freshness and directness to it that still stands, and that is far more palatable than the incomprehensible jargon salads that have been dished up in its wake since.
The quote above, from one of Berger's novels (another to-do item for me, I guess), brought to mind a whole galaxy of thoughts. Some were inspired by Berger's socialist-with-a-small-s leanings where he found working hand in hand with others at least as rewarding as art; some were ideas that had been floating about in my head for some time before the above quote pulled it together. Here they are; be patient as it may take a bit for me to connect the dots.
1. I have grown all the more cautious over time of the trope that the artist is automatically a hero. By this I do not mean that it is impossible for the artist to be a hero, only that the automatic association of artistry with heroism is well-meaning but misguided. The nadir of this sort of thing for me is novels about novelists. It's not that I find the inner lives of artists uninteresting; it's that a) the lives of actual novelists who have a live story worth telling are generally more interesting than the fabrication, because b) the fabrication often assumes an artist is interesting by mere dint of being an artist, and not because the world is interesting when seen through his specific eyes.
2. By the time I left college, I decided not to produce any work that could be described with the "novelist writing about a novelist" trope. If anything, I went out of my way to avoid stories about artists, if only because I was saving things up for a particular story (one I haven't written yet, good things take time) that would do proper justice to the whole idea, a la Joyce Carey's The Horse's Mouth. Some of it was waiting for the right story, but a big part of it was a sense that there were so many other possible subjects outside of other artists and especially other writers. If a writer wanted to look down into himself and report back, the results had better be groundbreaking, or fascinating on their own merit, or both (see: Proust) — and even then, there would be at least as much outward observation going on as there was introspection.
3. To write about something other than other artists, or other art, in a fictional format, seemed like one of the better ways to complement a prospective audience — not just to "be heard", but to be part of a conversation, to be part of the thing that encourages future artists to do their thing, and to encourage them in ways that aren't reductive (e.g., to not just get them to produce copies of whatever's currently popular for whatever reason, but to find roads only they can walk).
4. What I did not want to do, though, is use these decisions as a vehicle for evincing contempt for artists. This isn't about writing about regular folks because writers all have their heads up their sphincters; this is about realizing that a creator's attention is best turned outwards by default. It's also about me realizing my own life was way too middle-of-the-road to do justice to an artist-centric view of things. (Maybe I'm stupid for not having taken bigger risks when I was younger, but there was really no way for me to do that without alienating or endangering the people close to me.)
5. What I also did not want to do was turn all this into an excuse to cater to anyone. This is at the heart of what Berger's character meant when he said he couldn't serve like a waiter. To write stuff that most everyone can plug into and enjoy, and get something valuable out of — that's a great goal. But I can't do it at the cost of just being ... well, servile. And by that I mean a certain attitude towards both the production of the work and its intentions. The idea that if the Big Thing right now is Dinosaur Battlebot Porn (NO, WAIT, THAT WAS LAST WEEK), then I should be writing T. Rexadroid Vs. The Mandy Mounds-a-tron, and that such things are a necessary evil because they get you noticed. I can't do this stuff at the cost of putting off the things I wanted to take up a keyboard to do in the first place.
I cannot serve like a waiter, because that's not what this job is about.
I cannot serve like a waiter, because have better things to do than cater.*
* (not an intentional rhyme, honest)