What the last words of Joseph Turner can teach us about the importance of making art

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The final utterance of the era-defining 19th-century artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, as he lay dying of cholera was three, simple, beautiful words: the sun is god.

If you’re not familiar with Turner’s work, those words don’t make much sense and sound like the ramblings of a dying man. If you are, then they make perfect sense. To look at any one of his glorious paintings is to instantaneously recognise it as the work of a man who worshipped light. Turner was obsessed with it, seeing the sun as a sacred force which animated the world. In most of his work, any people who are present are crammed into a few centimetres square at the bottom of the canvas. Meanwhile, vast swathes of glowing light course across most of the painting. Turner devoted his life to light, to understanding it, travelling the world to find new forms and to creating thousands of sketches along the way. To try and recall what a Turner painting looks like when it is not in front of you is an exercise in futility. The lines and shapes do not linger, only a vague sense of overpowering colours.

In essence, all artists spend their lives trying to get something across, some concept which resonates deep within them, some idea they treasure and cannot quite articulate.

Figuring out what it is can be even harder for the creator than it is for their audience. Yet we feel it, a pulse between the words, pictures, lines, music or movement. On his death bed, Turner figured it out. For most artists, it lingers as an itchy compulsion. Consider the young Bob Dylan, uncomfortable in the limelight, unwilling to explain his songs, yet driven to keep producing them. Or Bukowski. Lifetimes devoted to expression and creation without a clear end goal. 

In a letter to a young fan, CS Lewis wrote:

"If you become a writer you'll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across."

I have been thinking a lot about art lately- more specifically how art can form the basis of a meaningful career which makes a difference to people.

By some luck, I found Linchpin by Seth Godin in my local library (which was surprising as they mostly stock books on knitting and crystal healing.) It is a fantastic book, both a manifesto and a guide to building an indispensable career through art. Rather than viewing creativity as a niche sort of work, Godin views it as a requirement for the current job market:

“What's left for us to work with? Art. Now, success means being an artist. In fact, history is now being written by the artists while the factory workers struggle. The future belongs to the chefs, not the cooks… Art isn't only a painting. Art is anything that's creative, passionate, and personal. Great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator… You can be an artist who works with oil paints or marble, sure. But there are artists who work with numbers, business models, and customer conversations. Art is about intent and communication, not substances...An artist is someone who used bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo... Art is not related to craft, except to the extent that craft helps deliver the change. Technical skill might be a helpful component in making art, but it's certainly not required. Art doesn't have to be decorative, it can be useful as long as the use causes change. Art is not limited to painting or sculpture or songwriting. If there is no change, there is no art. If no one experiences it, there can be no change. By definition, art is human. A machine can't make art, because intent matters. It's much more likely to be art if you do it on purpose."

Going even further, Godin describes art as our obligation, an opportunity to avoid soul-crushing work. This is something I am currently thinking acutely about. I have the choice between (as I discussed in my TED talk), opting for a safer path or continuing my risky path as a writer. Except, it has never been much of a choice for me. Put it this way: back when I lost confidence in my writing and started applying for jobs in supermarkets and fast food restaurants, I was rejected by every single one due to my lack of experience. Yet I am now finding more and more work as a writer, work which I love and which allows me to express my thoughts. In the conclusion, Godin writes: 

"It's easy to view your current situation as a box, a set of boundaries from which there is no escape. Of course, you need to keep living your life the way you've been living it because to do anything else it too scary, too risky, too bold. Especially given your health, your family, the economy, your age, the neighbourhood, your organisation, your education, your dreams. Everyone feels the same way. And yet. And yet every day a few people change everything. You can do it. You can embrace a new path and take it. Don't settle. You're a genius and we need your contribution. Do the work, please.”

There is a small supermarket, not far from my house, which I don’t visit often - but when I do visit, I always leave smiling. A sweet, balding old man works there and every time he serves me, he greets me like an old friend. He beams at me, asks how my day is going with genuine interest, compliments my tattoos and wishes me a lovely day with genuine sincerity. Every customer gets the same enthusiastic treatment. I have never seen him waver. No one could fake that kind of cheerfulness, however much they were paid to do it and I assume he gets minimum wage like the surly teenagers who also work there.

Every time I encounter him, I am reminded of an important adage: whatever you’re doing, you owe it to yourself to do it well. I once did a job where I made food for a maggot farm. I took it very seriously. It’s more complicated than it sounds. To feed one tank of maggots, you hard boil 4 eggs, peel them, grate them, soak some dog food in water, slice up bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes and fruit, then combine the three parts. Then you give it to the maggots, and they double in size overnight.

In Linchpin Godin emphasises that art is a concept which transcends any particular medium. People make their art with the tools available to them, with whatever means they have to express that thing. 

To do anything in a way which touches people and expresses what is inside your mind is art. If you do it with sincerity and honesty, serving in a supermarket or making maggot food can be art. Any work can be meaningful if you chose to make it so. Anything can inspire people if that is your goal. 

The world needs what each of us has to offer, our personal expressions of that thing, whatever form we chose to present it in. Turner became an artist, but I'm sure if he had been born in a different time or place he would have found a different medium to express those words (the sun is god.) I'm sure he would have done it by making stone tools or photographing weddings or writing graphic novels or whatever made sense. And so can the rest of us.

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