What does it take to be an artist?

Many try; few succeed. Judith Palmer asks the leading lights of creative Britain how they have combined vision and ambition to rise to the top

There's a moment in the Tom Stoppard play
Travesties, where an English consular official starts ranting about the role of the artist in society, complaining, "When I was at school, on certain afternoons we all had to do what was called labour - weeding, sweeping, sawing logs for the boiler-room, that kind of thing; but if you had a chit from matron you were let off to spend the afternoon messing about in the art room. Labour or art. And you've got a chit for life." A chit for life. Is that what it is to be an artist? A cushy side-stepping of the grit and slog of the ordinary mortal? A "real-life" exemption certificate?

There's a moment in the Tom Stoppard play Travesties, where an English consular official starts ranting about the role of the artist in society, complaining, "When I was at school, on certain afternoons we all had to do what was called labour - weeding, sweeping, sawing logs for the boiler-room, that kind of thing; but if you had a chit from matron you were let off to spend the afternoon messing about in the art room. Labour or art. And you've got a chit for life." A chit for life. Is that what it is to be an artist? A cushy side-stepping of the grit and slog of the ordinary mortal? A "real-life" exemption certificate?

In Private Views: Artists Working Today, practitioners from across the artistic spectrum, from their 20s to their 80s - painters, photographers, poets, composers, sculptors, playwrights, film-makers, novelists and installation artists - are interviewed to find out what characterises life as an artist in Britain today.

The strangest patterns of shared experience establish themselves. Many of the artists describe knotty battles with school careers tutors or the resigned disappointment of their parents. Cornelia Parker's mother, it transpires, was still cutting out job ads for her, even as her daughter's Turner prize show was opening at Tate Britain. "I had two great art teachers at school, but even they tried to tell me it was too hard a world," Parker recalls. "But that made being an artist even more attractive. At that age you want to be a rebel and do the thing no one else wants you to do. At Crewe Grammar School for Girls, the idea of going to art school was shocking. When I was a kid, my mother used to say: 'You always want to be different.' I couldn't work out what she meant. I was just trying to be myself."

The writer and film-maker Iain Sinclair grew up in a dynasty of doctors, but resisted the not inconsiderable pressure to follow in the family profession. His family valued art and books well enough, but only as hobbies. "It wasn't that artistic activities felt alien to them - what was alien was that you could attempt to make a living by them," says Sinclair. "They assumed these were the things that people did while they got on with their real lives. My difference was that I thought there is no other real life - this was the real life. I had no choice really."

The very notion of an "art career" rankles with some. "Art is not a career - it's a life," insists the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Iain Sinclair disagrees: "Life and career are the same thing. Every life has to have a plot and a plan. You have to recognise this early and be quite cold-blooded in the discovery and articulation of that plot."

Recalling the moment that her play Humble Boy opened at the National Theatre, Charlotte Jones captures the mixed emotions of being catapulted to success, "Is this what I've been aiming for? Is this the zenith? Is it all downhill from now on?"

"One minute someone's very famous and fantastic, and then in a few years they're nowhere," warns the painter Paula Rego. "The art world has a very short memory."

The flip side is, as the sculptor Richard Wentworth used to explain to his students brutally: "If the escalator hasn't really started to move by the time you're 35, it's probably not going to." When you know the clock's against you, it can be even harder to stick to your convictions.

The reality for most artists - even well-known ones - is the need to take on other paid work to supplement their income. The most common option is teaching, even though there is agreement that it draws on the same energies as making work. When Cyril Connolly published his 1946 survey on writers' living standards in Horizon magazine, George Orwell came to the same conclusion, maintaining: "I can just imagine, for instance, a bank clerk or an insurance agent going home and doing serious work in his evenings; whereas the effort is too much to make if one has already squandered one's energies on semi-creative work such as teaching, broadcasting or composing propaganda for bodies such as the British Council."

The composer Judith Weir (who has even had the full Melvyn Bragg treatment on The South Bank Show) talks poignantly of the struggle to resist the lure of the full-time teaching post; and of frantically doing little calculations to work out how much writing time she can buy back with each piece of teaching offered: "I think there's an assumption that composers are all Andrew Lloyd Webbers, when really royalties practically don't exist in this field for most of us. So many composers take on this bit of teaching, then this bit of teaching, to support their composing but find then all their time has been filled up." And then, of course, there are all the visual artists who work five days a week to afford to rent a studio, which they never actually get to work in because they're too busy toiling elsewhere.

Not that Weir's complaining. "At the end of the day, no one asked me to do this," she's quick to add. "It was my own idea, and I was well-informed that you don't become rich on it. Simply to be doing it after all this time is something I can be thankful for."

Nevertheless, congenial employment can do more than bring home the bacon. As a young divorce barrister, listening to the sexual secrets of middle-aged suburban housewives provided material for John Mortimer's plays, novels and film-scripts. Mortimer admits he gave up barristering about 10 years too late, and wonders if he'd have "written something much more wonderful if I'd given it up earlier".

The musician Nitin Sawhney, who was shortlisted for the Mercury music prize, performed in the comedy series Goodness Gracious Me. It had all started off as a bit of a laugh with his mate Sanjeev Bhaskar, but he felt he had to leave the show. "I'm a musician, and I wasn't looking to become famous as a comedian," says Sawhney. "Three days before filming, I rang Sanj and said I couldn't do it. Pulling out was a bloody annoying thing to do to the other people, and a bit selfish in some ways, but I'm incredibly happy I did. You have yourself and your instinct - there isn't anything else at the end of the day. Your instinct throws up alarm bells at the most useful times. I think your subconscious protects you. It's all about listening to it."

"If I'm not doing the work I want, I usually suffer a psychological allergic reaction and get ill," reports Cornelia Parker. Back in 1991, Parker was in protracted negotiations with a bank to make a work for their new building. The exasperating conversations and compromises drove her to breaking point - she pulled out and made Cold Dark Matter, the suspended fragments of an exploded garden shed which sealed her reputation, and which has now been bought by the Tate. "It was a real turning point. Following my instinct and intuition really paid off," says Parker.

For many artists, working to commission and doing "their own work" demands a schizophrenic existence. (It's like that old Hollywood director's maxim: "one for the studio, one for myself".) Catherine Yass has given up believing that you can bend a commission into what you want to do, and it is perhaps significant that she was nominated for the Turner prize the year she decided to "pull back, and try and make sure I only take on projects which push my work in a certain way".

Artists often speak of completing large-scale works as "an endurance test". Judith Weir admits the exhausting personal toll of spending two years non-stop writing an opera is possibly too damaging to want to repeat. Cornelia Parker also reached a point where she decided she had to say "no" to "the big stuff, which takes so much energy". She explains, "The small works allowed me a lot more freedom, because there were lots of ideas I wanted to explore but I couldn't have had the time to make them all into large-scale works... It's all about trying to be as productive as possible."

Once you've built your reputation on a particular signature style, it can be hard to wriggle your way out of the straitjacket of your own brand identity. After all, where does "distinctively recognisable" end and "stalely repetitious" begin? The Magnum photographer Martin Parr outlines the dilemma: "People ask me to do things in my own particular way, and, clearly, when solving the problems of photography under pressure, you're going to use all the language and the tricks you know in order to solve that problem. Whether you call that "rehashing" or "using your experience", I'm not sure. It's probably a bit of both."

"As artists get wealthier and more famous, often their work gets worse. It's a pretty standard movement isn't it?", Parr continues. "I'm fascinated by the decline of artists. Often their first work, when they're energetic, raw and hungry to do things, is the most engaging. There have been some exemplary artists, like Picasso, who go on to do greater things, but for us lesser mortals it's very difficult. I still regard myself as a very energetic person, but I'm certainly very mindful that I'm inevitably in decline." To counter this fear, Parr makes forays into the worlds of fashion and radio, makes artist's books, collects boring postcards...

It has become the artist's job to provide the new. The sound-artist and writer David Toop picks up the theme, pondering "the gap that widens between novelty and longevity as life shuffles on." What do you do when the ideas run out? Should a break of five years be mandatory between artworks? Maybe, if there wasn't the mortgage to consider. The irony is that the more successful an artist becomes, the more administration, the more travel, the more interviews, the more advisory committeeships, the more students writing a thesis on you, the more just about anything except time to think, there are.

"Right now I'd like to read for a year," says Toop. "New ideas emerge of their own free will if they are allowed to. If I spend one day in my garden, able to shed the imperatives and distractions that structure the administration of being an artist and the responsibilities of living within a family, then ideas start to rise to the surface."

But how does it feel when your ideas become public property? The winner of the Whitbread poetry award Selima Hill describes being published as like having people rushing in to find out where she is hiding. And yet Hill considers herself to be freer in her art than in the rest of her life. "All I do and say and think 'as a poet' is much truer and more intimate than anything I say face-to-face," she suggests. "The very things I used to be told off for - daydreaming, exaggerating, making mistakes, wild guessing, contradicting, spying, being obsessive, being reckless, for these, suddenly, I am being praised," says Hill.

It's a nervous life, uncertain and full of contradictions. But no escape from real life.

'Private Views: Artists Working Today', edited by Judith Palmer, is published by Serpent's Tail (£14.99)

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