The Amateur Life

Everything recently has been pointing me towards the joy of the home made, of the amateur.

Professional and amateur: when you set those two opposites together nowadays, the values are clear. Professional is good and sleek and efficient. Amateur is messy, substandard. But the word amateur comes from amor. The person who loves what they do. And think about professional. The profession is what we do to earn money. The professional is the act that is finessed by the financial, by earning our keep.

One is about transaction and the other is about love.

This week I went to the New York City Ballet’s Balanchine evening at the Colisseum. NYCB are the acme of polished dance. Spotless, athletic, beautiful. I love Balanchine and in the final cascade of Symphony in C I felt the bubbles of delight rise in my throat.

The following day, I went, after work to see my nephew who had been cast in the lead of the High Wycombe district’s combined schools musical ‘The Bluebird.’ Six hundred children singing together wonderful music written specially for them – dancing and acting their way through the story.
In terms of response, in terms of pure unadulterated delight, the ragged, joyful sprawl of ‘The Bluebird’ beat the Balanchine hands down.

Not to say that school plays are better than Balanchine. There’s space for both. But definitely to say that the amateur is often – if not intrinsically – more satisfying than the professional

When you make things for money not for love then the delight dims.

I have always wholeheartedly treasured in your work the whiff of the school play. It tickles me still and I miss it terribly.

Tilda Swinton wrote a fabulous open letter to the dead filmmaker Derek Jarman which is the basis to a new documentary on his life. You should look at the full text – it’s wonderful and inspiring.

She is far from hagiographic and often deflates Jarman’s bumptiousness but her passion for what his films stood for is undimmed:

Things have got awfully tidy recently. There is a lot of finish on things. Clingfilm gloss and the neatest of hospital corners. The formula merchants are out in force. They are in the market for guaranteed product. Financial returns… add -water- and -stir [ … ]The dead hand of Good Taste has commenced its last great attempt to buy up every soul on the planet, and from where I’m sitting, it’s going great guns.

What stands out is that spirit of the ‘school-play’, the amateur. Most of Jarman’s films were made for £200,000. But it was precisely that willfull and perverse determination that characterises the love that makes the ‘amateur’ better and more satisfying than the professional.

That the example you set us is as simple as a logo to sell a sports shoe; less chat, more action, less fiscal reports, more films, less paralysis, more process. Less deference. More dignity. Less money. More work. Less rules. More examples. Less dependence. More love.

I loved the films of Jarman when I was growing up and I wondered whether they would have aged well with all their heavy and often pretensious imagery and allusion. I think they have. I loved seeing them again. Their wit and freshness was bracing.

The rather vicious reviews the show at the Serpentine got seem to me the laziest kind of homophobia. The thrust of them all was: why did he bang on about being gay all the time. A question one never poses to any heterosexual filmmaker. And besides why not? He was a gay man and he was dying of AIDS. Isn’t that valid enough. It actually infuriates me that these fat, married art critics are allowed to make comment’s like:

As my 13-year-old daughter muttered harshly as she fled a show that offered her absolutely nothing in the way of shared experiences: “Okay, you’re gay. Now move on.”

Since when has a 13-year-old girl’s experience been the touchstone of artistic validity? What is the shared experience in Guernica, in the St Matthew’s Passion, in Beethoven’s string quartet that would interest a 13-year-old girl? It’s blatantly a ‘disgust’ rather than a absence of shared experience that inspires that comment. Which says more about Waldemar Januszczak’s parenting than his daughter’s aesthetic taste.

On a less narked and more amatory note. (Or should that be amateury?) I went to ‘Duckie’ last night at the Vauxhall Tavern. A venerable bastion of gay culture through the years – Lily Savage fought the police here – the Royal Vauxhall Tavern has always kept the gay cultural flag burning. Duckie is particularly wonderful. I think they describe themselves as authentic London honky-tonk and progressive working-class art for giddy young men. I’ve seen some bizarre and wonderful things put on in that tiny, beery, sweaty venue, to a rapt and appreciative and mostly drunk crowd of happy gay men and women.

Last night was the Srishti Dance company. 8 eleganted shirt-and-tied men dancing and singing the most electrifying Indian music and dance. A bit like Kathak vogueing. How on earth they stayed so elegant on that tiny slippery stage I have no idea. Anyway, I loved them and I loved the beery crowd who cheered their hearts out more.

And the last word to Tilda on Derek:

And the clarity with which you offered up your life and the living of it, particularly since the epiphany – I can call it nothing less – of your illness, was a genius stroke, not only of provocation, but of grace . With your gesture of public confessional, both within and without your work- at a time when people talked fairly openly about setting up ostracised HIV island communities and others feared, not only for their lives, but, believe it or not, also for their jobs, their insurance policies, their friendships, their civil rights – was made with such particular, and characteristically inclusive, generosity that it was at that point that you made an impact far outspanning the influence of your work. made your spirit , your nature, known to us – and the possibility of an artist’s fearlessness, a reality. And the truth of it is: by defying it, you may have changed the market as well


  1. m

    March 16, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    I made a special trip to see the exhibition I’m glad that I didn’t read the reviews. I found Derek to be very inspirational when younger and was glad to find that he still inspires me. I do feel after seeing the Isaacs film how horrible to remember how loathesome the 80’s were and Jarman was incredidbly brave to make a stand against that mean era.

  2. Rick

    March 17, 2008 at 1:40 am

    ….”amateur” doesn’t necessarily have to mean messy or
    substandard IMHO. I plant myself firmly in the amateur
    artist category because I make only a small percentage of
    income from selling my work. But that’s my choice because I
    love what I do. So many artist friends have sold out, gone
    professional, making work that strictly appeals to the
    mass market. What a shame as the work ends up suffering
    when money is involved.
    Alistair, enjoy your journey towards the home made!

  3. St

    March 17, 2008 at 5:18 am

    When I begin a project I always have these grander ideas on
    how well it will turn out. Then when I start I for get
    about the goal of it being so perfect and realize that
    putting your heart and skill into what I am doing makes me
    feel so much better and allows me to be proud of what I
    accomplished. The reward for me is the confidence to do
    things, enjoy the time spent (kind like a way to get rid of
    stress for me), and a friend telling you that it looks

  4. alistair

    March 17, 2008 at 9:56 am

    The more time passes since I saw it, the more I really loved the exhibit.
    Partly because of his work, but also partly because of the love that went into it.
    The text from Swinton is really inspiring on many levels, not least because of the deep and
    touching affection she obviously had for the man. But also the fact that the whole project
    is a sort of love letter to this man of many colours and immense bravery and rough edges.
    How that critic can reduce it all to his sexuality is beyond me. More that 40% of the show is ‘Blue’
    his meditation on dying, blind and ill, from AIDS. Everyone dies for heaven sake. Talk about a ‘shared experience’!

  5. Hg

    March 17, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    I saw Januszczak’s daughter’s response in a more positive light, demonstrating how far the world has moved on since Jarman’s heyday of the late ’70s and early ’80s. When I was her age back then, few 13-year-olds would have casually dismissed overt homosexuality as irrelevant and unworthy of particular attention.

    Yes, in doing so she misses the point that it was his sexuality that drove much of his art, but I think we can forgive someone of her age for not getting that (she wouldn’t be the first 13-year-old to miss the point of an artwork). But in general surely her blasé, indifferent attitude is a wonderful thing to behold?

  6. alistair

    March 18, 2008 at 12:54 am

    It’s not Januszczak’s daughter I hold to task but her father.
    He puts his daughters words at the end of his review, as the summation to his piece.
    And I don’t think it’s his daughter’s blase indifference that he’s pointing to. He has her
    ‘mutter’ it ‘harshly’ as she ‘flees’ the exhibition that offers her ‘absolutely nothing in the way of
    shared experience’. That is not indifference. It’s cowardly of Januszczak to put his judgement in
    his daughters’ mouth, or indeed to reduce her response in that way. Why didn’t he just say what he thought:
    ‘You’re gay. Get over it.’ Which said to a dead man who had a public disagreement with Januszczak during
    his career would have been revoltingly tasteless.

  7. m

    March 18, 2008 at 1:08 am

    As a straight woman I found Derek’s work had much to say to me. I’m also amazed at how ‘prophetic’ it is. Lots of stuff in the last of England DID come to pass – the British Royal Family did go quite bonkers, the divorce of parliament from the people pace the Iraq war… but nobody mentions this.

  8. Addison DeWitt

    March 18, 2008 at 2:34 am

    On a more serious and important topic Alastair. How many points do you get for Waldemar Januszczak in scrabble

  9. Geoff Coupe

    March 18, 2008 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks. That was worth saying. And I found Januszczak’s use of his daughter’s pronouncement turned my stomach.

  10. chris

    March 20, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    Stumbled on you by accident following a review of one of your meditation courses.

    I felt moved to look up “amateur” in the OED. Of the choice quotations, my favourite is:
    “1863 MRS. ATKINSON Tartar Steppes 89: I am no amateur of these melons.”

    You also reminded me of the 1990s Hal Hartley art-house film “Amateur”, where the characters stumble around drunkenly, “amateurishly”. I can’t remember it well enough to say why it was called amateur. Possibly the suggestion that we’re all amateurs when it comes to life…

  11. Valerie W

    March 21, 2008 at 6:20 pm

    Looking at the pictures again today. Needed a spring
    They remind of a very pleasant vacation I had on
    Nantucket Island. Restful, peaceful, pleasant. Thanks

  12. alistair

    March 21, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    The pictures here are from Jarman’s garden in Dungeness in the shadow of a massive nuclear powerstation.

  13. Valerie W

    March 22, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    Whoa, is their beauty in every situation or is that the ‘
    Anyway loved the pictures whereever they are.

  14. Brian

    March 22, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Not all 13-year-old girls lack artistic validity.
    Anne Frank was a 13-year-old girl whose art in the
    form of a girl’s journal was immensely valid. Please
    don’t throw the 13-year-olds out with the bathwater.

  15. Addison DeWitt

    March 23, 2008 at 5:43 am

    Waldermar Janusczak has got one of those faces you’d like to punch and knock his teeth out.
    He reminds me of a fat slug. I think the Dalai Lama would make an allowance for me if I did it.

  16. Lucy

    March 23, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    That was a toothsome selection of morsels!

    Here ‘amateur de’ means you’re rather a connoisseur of something, a buff, you just love it.

    I would like to see Jarman’s garden, what is the text on the side of the house?

  17. robin

    March 27, 2008 at 3:27 am

    How could one trek all the way out to Dungeness and manage NOT to seek out DJ’s house while there? That’s the question I’m still asking myself two years later. Urgh. Knew full well it was there, mere steps away, and still missed it. Bloody hell.

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