Noticing things: what artists do

“Recently a friend told me about a child she encountered in an education programme she was working on at Whitechapel Art Gallery. At the beginning of the project she asked the children, “What do you think a contemporary artist does?” And this particular child rather precociously put her hand up and said, “They sit around in Starbucks and eat organic salad.” And I imagine that is a pretty accurate assessment of many artists’ behaviour in the fashionable parts of the city. At the end of the course, after they had spent some time looking at what contemporary artists did, my friend asked them, “What do you now think a contemporary artist does?” And the same child said, “They notice things.” And I thought, wow, that’s a really short, succinct definition of what an artist does. My job is to notice things that other people don’t notice.”
Grayson Perry (2014) Playing to the Gallery. Penguin. p116

I’ve just finished reading “Playing to the Gallery” by Grayson Perry. It’s a lovely read and is absolutely perfect as a ‘plane book’: the kind of book that is interesting and entertaining enough to hold your attention during strong turbulence, but short enough that you can read it in a couple of hours and give it to a friend who also has a flight coming up. I love this sort of book because I find that so many books these days are just too long. At 135 pages this is the sort of book you can read once and then almost immediately read again to make sure you remember all the good bits for later when you want to tell someone about it.

There were lots of things in the book that made me think, made me laugh and made me nod in agreement. The section I’ve quoted above about what contemporary artists do was a bit I liked so much that I bookmarked it so I could come back and think about it some more. What struck me personally about the statement “They notice things” is that this is something people have said about me since I was a child.

My mum has said for as long as I can remember, “Oh, Mary notices all these things that I never even see.” This is particularly tied to my ability to find four leaf clovers everywhere as they seem to jump out at me as being the ‘wrong pattern’. (It freaks people out a bit to be honest).

My partner, Dan, thinks I’m hilarious because he imagines I just wander the streets pondering life and getting engrossed in noticing things while being oblivious to where I’m supposed to be going. He calls this ‘Puffining’ because he thinks I resemble a thoughtful puffin, especially when I wear my backpack on the bus; “What were you doing outside? Just puffining around I bet!”

I’ve discovered that even as a contractor I notice far more about the physical aspects of the office environment than the people who work there full time, so when I ask them questions about things I invariably get the answer, “Oh, I don’t know… I never noticed that.”

I always thought this was just a quirk of my personality, but now I’m coming to realise that this is what it is to be a contemporary artist. We all do this – wandering around noticing things and annoying other people. Grayson Perry has made me feel that my noticing ability is actually a boon to my art practice and not just something that my family thinks is amusing. As he said above: my job is to notice things that other people don’t notice!

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