Art and Asking

I’m reading Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking. I shouldn’t be, because it is November, and I am very far behind in writing my NaNoWriMo novel (or NaNovel, if you will). But it’s good, and I couldn’t help myself, and it has set me thinking.


I like the way Amanda writes. We have a similar style, I think, so I enjoy reading her work. This book is about asking, but it is also about the nature of Art, of artists and connection and story-telling.


Here’s the thing – and it’s really THE thing, in a way, for me – all stories are true, to a point.


At university, I studied psychology. An aspect of one paper was that human memory is not a reliable thing. A group of people is shown a video of a car crash. A cartoon crash. The cartoon car is not badly damaged. The group of people does something else. They then describe what they remember about the scene. Some people’s questions involved words like “smash”. These people were more likely to recall seeing broken glass in the video, even though there was no broken glass. It was a study that underlined the fact that witness testimony is not always reliable, and that that is not the fault of the witness. We learned about a woman who was raped by an intruder, and bravely memorised the face of her attacker during the act. Then she fingered the wrong man, who went to jail for a long time. The image of the man had changed in her mind when she made an identification in a photo lineup. She was convinced that this was the man who had attacked her. And she was devastated years later when DNA evidence sent a different man to prison, and she realised she had been wrong.


Memories can be manipulated. They can be created from whole cloth.


History – everything we know about the past – is stories. Stories from chroniclers, from historians, from letters and diaries, from our own memories. They differ, they conflict, they contradict, and everything we know of history changes and fluctuates with current interpretations and resources. Was Richard II a bad king, or is that Henry IV’s propaganda? What about Richard III? Did he really murder the Princes in the Tower? We he a cruel hunchback, or a better guy than we think? For that matter, what about Richard I, the great Crusader? Christian hero perhaps, but good king? The old, fat and tyrannical Henry VIII overshadows the young, fit and intelligent Henry VIII in our minds. Both are Henry VIII. Both are true.


All stories are true, for a given value of true. This is a philosophy I’ve acquired from Terry Pratchett, mythology, and fairy tales, and more recently, Neil Gaiman, who I think speaks that same language. There’s no monster under your bed, but you won’t let your hand dangle over the edge, just in case. Evolution doesn’t contradict the bible, depending on how you read it. Roads are delayed and redirected so they won’t encroach on the habitats of the Huldufolk. All stories are true.


If you read Discworld you know what I mean. There is no flat world atop elephants atop a turtle named Great A’Tuin (that we know of). Yet Discworld is a mirror of our world. It contains truths. Truths about ourselves, about our society, about how we tell stories, about how we relate to other people. It contains people we know; every police station has a Colon, every battalion has a Nobby. We know these stories. We tell them to ourselves and we tell other ones to convince ourselves the first ones aren’t real. And each is true. They are Older Than Dirt, folded into our humanity.


And this is art. It tells stories and it tells truths, at the same time. It shows you this world and another world and both worlds are true. It shows you many things at once. This is not a pipe – it is a painting of a pipe. But we had to be told that.


Around page 32 Amanda talks about how so much of her art, and art in general, is reaching out and saying “PLEASE. BELIEVE ME. I’M REAL”. I agree and it goes further than ourselves. Believe me, this is real. This thing I’m showing you, it’s real. The things it makes you feel, those are real, even if they’re not what I meant or intended when I made this piece. This dragon, this demon, this princess, this heroine, they are REAL. They are everything.


We are a bundle of the stories we tell ourselves. I am a writer, I am a woman, I am this, I am that. I am loved, I am hated, I am afraid, I am large, I am small. I am bad. I am good. I am an artist. I am a failure. I am amazing. We’re a knot of the things we remember and the things we think and the things we feel and the way we react to the world around us, and the stories we tell ourselves about the world. We are real, believe us, see us. And each story is real, to a point. We are both good and bad, both big and small, although, or so I tell myself, not even close to as hated as we all imagine, and more loved than we tell ourselves.


As a teenager, I discovered that wearing a mask lets you be more openly yourself, and then you see it everywhere you look. Batman’s himself when he puts on the mask, and Bruce Wayne is the man he pretends to be. We speak our truths through our characters’ mouths, and wrap them up in bows and give them out and whisper “believe me”. You can say things through art that can’t be adequately said any other way. You can say things through art you don’t even understand until you’ve said them.


There are big ones. Big stories with big characters you love because they have that verisimilitude to them. They’re real, and you won’t hear otherwise. David Eagleman wrote that there are three deaths: when you die, when you are buried, and finally, when your name is said for the last time. Characters might die, but only within the story, and you can go back to the beginning and they are alive again. They have no body to be consigned to the earth. So they live forever until their story is lost and their names are no longer spoken. Their stories sit heavy in the mind. The stories say, this is a thing that was Done. Maybe not by these people, at this time, in this way, on this Earth, but it was Done, and it was Real.


For the record, The Art of Asking is a very confrontational book for me. I am a withdrawn person. I am private. I find it difficult to relate to people, and the idea of being intentionally vulnerable and open around people is something I find both terrifying and distasteful. I don’t think of this so much as a flaw – it’s a part of the make-up of who I am – but it makes some things difficult and other things out of reach, so it means if I want those things, those aspects of social interaction, those elements of humanity, I have to work on it. I think much better in writing than I do out loud, with all the intricacies of what faces do and tone does and how one is meant to react. The telephone is more difficult still, when you have no cues at all, and people can’t see your face to know your silence is contemplative. Amanda’s book is all about vulnerability, about connecting with other people. It’s beautiful, and perfect, but for me it’s confrontational, but I think that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for me, it’s a good thing for the book itself. I have social anxiety; in some ways I am always vulnerable, especially when I say “I have social anxiety, please forgive me if I do something weird”. Amanda can do things I can’t. But that’s fine, and that’s beautiful – that’s part of the make-up of who she is. I could never couch-surf the way she does, I worry too much. But I still I often think it would be nice to have a Cloud Club of my own, an art-sanctuary of a home or studio, and you can’t do that without daring to meet people and share and ask and be vulnerable.


I’ve met Amanda a handful of times. We’ve fist-bumped a time we were both wearing elbow-length, fingerless opera gloves. We’ve hugged. She signed my ukulele, and the notebook I got as a part of my reward for backing her Theatre is Evil Kickstarter. I’ve met some of my best friends through her music and her twitter hashtag for Friday nights when you’re just hanging out alone at home, #LOFNOTC. She kissed my cheek and played with my hair at the end of a long show after most of the crowd had dispersed. She is genuine, and open, and loving, even when she’s tired and sad. And because I am a socially awkward mess, I still have a hard time saying anything to her but “Hi Amanda can you sign blah blah” and then, later, probably too quietly for her to hear, “Thank you, I love you”. But I don’t think she needs to hear it to know it anyway. She gets it.


When Amanda was a statue – she writes about it at length – people wrote their own stories about her in their minds. The white – blank – bride, the angel, the forlorn, the whoever. Who is she marrying, why is she alone? As Amanda writes, “She could be anything”. They make up stories about her, and as I read, I think, “each of those stories is true”. Each one of those people goes home with the Bride in their minds and their stories, and maybe they tell someone, “I saw one of those statue people, she was a bride giving people flowers like bits of her heart”. Their own little art about another person’s art that they saw in passing on the street. Photographs of spray-painted street art, composed just so, re-telling the same story in a slightly different way, a different medium, extending the message with one’s own interpretation. Fan-fiction of TV shows, movies, novels, games – the story lives forever, told over and over again in different ways.


Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life, Picasso tells us. We rise from the grey eternity of work and chores to make eye contact with an Eight Foot Bride or spend a moment with Caravaggio or let Miles Davis take control of our souls for five minutes. Art outlasts us, it takes the truths we tell and tells them again and again to strangers parted from us by centuries. It goes with the people who see it and changes their lives. They believe, and it is Real.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.