"Ways of Being", by Oliver Mestitz

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BEING AN ARTIST

In Paris Stories,i Mavis Gallant remembers her father as someone whose persona was “so matter-of-fact, so taken for granted, so fully accepted by other people” that she couldn’t imagine her childhood without it. Her father was a painter. He saw himself as a painter and made friends as a painter and moved from England to Canada as a painter and died in his early thirties, never having burned out or given up or achieved recognition beyond his own circle but always having been identified in the same way. It wasn’t until years later, after a family friend told Gallant that her father had also worked for a firm that imported office furnishings, that she could allow herself to think of him as something else. “What did you imagine you lived on?” the family friend had asked her, seeing the realisation dawn on her face.

There’s a difference between making art, making money from art, and using art as a means of making money. The first is common enough. It’s the story of daydreamers and hobby makers and children. It’s the story of Gallant’s father. It’s the story of my Nan, who was an amateur singer for the Hobart Theatre Royal and a painter of solemn, twiggy landscapes, as well as a primary school teacher and wife and mother of three.

If you’re already making art, it’s not difficult to make money in return. As far as I know, my Nan was never paid to perform (although she was a singing teacher for years), but her watercolours and oils were displayed in the households of friends and family and strangers, and I remember at least one exhibition at the Bothwell post office. Even Mr Bean earned some change by laying his handkerchief on the pavement and dancing. Over the last ten years I’ve been paid for gigs and published stories and sold chapbooks and tapes and CDs, although whether this represents a profit I’m not sure. If I haven’t earned cash-in-hand, I’ve improvised tax returns and Statement by Supplier forms, remaining exempt from an ABN because, as far as the government is concerned, the figures are too small to be significant.

Justin Heazlewood’s latest book Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia explores the third category of art making. Here, art is depicted not as a way of being or seeing or expressing or coping, but as a livelihood. Heazlewood covers an impressive amount of ground in his depiction of a professional artist’s practice, from growing up to fitting in to burning out, from being self-sufficient to independent to commercial, from the local to the national to the international, from obscurity to fame to poverty, publicity, networking, management, government and family and fan-based funding, workaholism, alcoholism, addiction, rejection, depression, jealously, giving up and starting again. Equal respect is shown to multimedia art, fine art, theatre, dance, film, television, comedy, and the spoken, written and drawn words, although music is discussed most of all. Many of the day-to-day realities and peculiarities of each art form are omitted for the sake of a wider lens.

I was disappointed at how little Heazlewood writes about touring, despite acknowledging it as independent musicians’ prime source of income and expense (especially in Australia, where cities are few and far between). The same can be said for the festival circuit attended by writers and filmmakers, although festival funding and organisation mostly remains out of artists’ hands. While it’s considered by many to be a necessity and a benchmark of a musician’s career, touring is one of the most surreal blends of ambition, resignation, adrenaline, monotony, malnourishment, discipline, loneliness, social claustrophobia, and displacement an artist can put themselves through; a recurring dream fuelled by cheap coffee and free beer. In an interview from 2012 (when his career was at an all-time high), Ed Droste described a typical day on tour with Grizzly Bear as being almost unchanged since the band’s formative years:

Cars breaking down, sleeping on floors, being allergic to the cat in someone’s house, making literally no money, playing in a diner, having ten people show up, being like Why are we doing this?, eating beef jerky from the gas station for protein.

Unlike Droste, Funemployed rarely asks why. It is a book obsessed with when and where and how. Heazlewood refers to art as a career, a gamble and a “start-up of one” and his insistence that “being an artist means running a business” becomes a sort of mantra. From this perspective, various facets of an artist’s life – inspiration, procrastination, depression, self-doubt, and relationships – are reduced to obstacles or tools for success. Making art is a means to an end, not an end in itself. We’re told that that “artists should handle ideas like bankers handle money” and that, “once understood and controlled, [self-doubt] can be framed to fuel your work”. Art is not a form of therapy, but a career choice that will leave you needing therapy. The advice given to perfectionists, especially those who let anxiety get in the way of ambition, is to “suck it up”.

Heazlewood uses the same language when talking about the origin of one of his most successful songs, “Northcote (So Hungover)”. There is no joy or play or wonder in the story. Heazlewood describes the song and its film clip as “an attempt to stay ahead of the pack”, a kind of ironic back-flip that he hoped would see him avoid being a target of the “hipster witch-hunts of 2010”. The focus on the broader cultural and economic implications of his career makes a claim like “I am a sole trader, making art primarily for myself, not my audience” hard to swallow. Even when quoting others, Heazlewood defines art as a practice that looks outward rather than to itself for meaning: “Art’s role, author Cesar A Cruz wrote, is to ‘disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed’”.

 

BEING UNDERSTOOD

Funemployed is marketed as a “part confessional and part rogue self-help book”, a mixture of interviews, memoirs, statistics and advice. Half of the book is taken up by interviews with over one hundred artists and industry professionals, interspersed with stories of Heazlewood’s own career as an artist. Each piece of information or advice is related back to the personal or anecdotal. At the beginning of each chapter is a pencil-drawn chart or graph or equation, usually ironic, as if to apologise for the information that follows.

The interviews in Funemployed are candid, funny, shameful, proud, insightful, biased, defeatist, earnest, inspirational, passionate and confronting. As well as providing wisdom and perspective, they give the book its narrative drive. After slogging through pages of self-loathing, confessional-style memoir (Heazlewood cites Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as an influence) it’s almost a relief to read Garreth Liddard say, “as ugly as these things get, somehow there’s a romance to it all, and that’s the beauty of the romance”. Heazlewood doesn’t try to point out inconsistencies between one interviewee’s opinion and another, or even between the research and his personal experience – a conflict that occurs frequently.

In an interview with Books + Publishing about Funemployed (and in the book itself), Heazlewood refers to writing as a process of unpacking. The slow, weave-like experience of piecing together a book (as a writer and a reader) is foreign to the shorter, performative forms of music and stand-up comedy. Even so, the thing that first struck me about Heazlewood’s writing was its similarity to songwriting. He has a fondness for quips and wordplay and will happily fall back on cliché if it means explaining something the easy way. At best, this sees him talking about “that wonder-fuel, momentum” and describing his Nan’s thighs in a pair of shorts like “a pair of scorched almonds”. At worst, he uses phrases like “the skills to pay the bills and the abilities to pay the utilities” and “ease the squeeze” and expects to be taken seriously.

Heazlewood’s best writing – such as the passage where he discusses his mother’s mental illness – is simple and declarative. Likewise, what Lawrence Greenwood has to say in Funemployed about bi-polar disorder demonstrates that the plain reality of mental illness speaks for itself. The pain and bitterness caused by the anxiety of managing a music career as Whitley, touring overseas, putting on weight, losing sleep, obsessively self-analysing and googling and trying to match the personal expectations of the audience (he says that fans have approached him after shows and said, “I would’ve thought you were a much nicer person”) are obvious and affecting. Heazlewood confuses the issue by relating it back to himself, cloaking social anxiety in a series of metaphors:

My observation skills make for a hyper-awareness that, when turned inwards, is a weapon of mass deconstruction. Like a delinquent pet, my brain gets into the bin, fanning rubbish around my mind. My train of thought is … easily hijacked by terrorists who use it to spread fear and gloom. Sometimes my armour of resilience works too well … I can become overly defensive, my insecurity guards picking fights with anyone who looks at me the wrong way.

 

BEING JUSTIN HEAZLEWOOD

“The catch with the arts,” Heazlewood writes, “is that the business is the personal”. Funemployed is a book written by Justin Heazlewood, which is the real name of the musician and comedian The Bedroom Philosopher. Heazlewood’s career as The Bedroom Philosopher is the lens through which the reader is shown Life as an Artist in Australia.

But who is Justin Heazlewood? Is he the same person as The Bedroom Philosopher? Funemployed traces the artist’s career chronologically – from childhood wonderment to naivety to success to fame to overworking to burning out to quitting and thinking about starting a different way – with flashbacks and interjections and instructions and polemics so that sometimes it’s hard to know which opinion is whose. This is complicated by Heazlewood’s love of irony and metaphor, especially with reference to himself.

There are at least seven Justin Heazlewoods in Funemployed. First is Justin Haezlewood the “full-time writer” who, through writing, is attempting to “unpack the layers of ceaseless adrenalin and ruthless self-management … to back my memories up”. He’s written articles for frankie and had a long career in the arts and wants to take some time out to become self-sufficient. This may or may not be the same person as the second-year student who, years earlier, “spewed like a volcano of self” in an opinion column for the campus magazine, CUrio (the name of his article was “Being Justin Heazlewood”).

Next is Justin Heazlewood the comedian and musician, who most people know as The Bedroom Philosopher: when talking about this review with my friends, I told them I was writing about a book by The Bedroom Philosopher. As the introduction states, this Justin Heazlewood “represents the category of ‘mid-career artist’” who has come to think of The Bedroom Philosopher “as a character”. This Justin Heazlewood is obsessed with his career, his audience, and himself. He reads all of his reviews and the YouTube comments on his film clips and agonises over the fact that, as a comedian and a musician, his art is often too cutting-edge for a mainstream audience. He’s the kind of person Steph Brotchie has sympathy for when she says, “if you use your name on stage, then you have to talk about yourself like you’re a bottle of milk”. He’s often reflected upon and scorned by the first Justin Heazlewood.

The other Justin Heazlewoods play minor roles. There’s “Little Justin”, who plays as many open mic and poetry nights and comedy and folk festivals as he possibly can; “Mr Puzzles”, who peddles jokes and word games in the campus newspaper; “Captain Freelance”, who publishes stories in Voiceworks and writes reviews for BMA and MUSE; “Mr Heazlewood”, the self-employed performer’s “boss who doesn’t know what’s going on”; and “Indie Justin”, who books his own national tour and pops a button on his cardigan when someone refers to him as “emo”. Add to these the metaphors that are used to describe an artist’s ego (a “little creature living inside their chest”), depressive moods (“The Black Dog”) and jealousy (“The Black Cat”) and you begin to understand what Jean Cocteau meant when he referred to Victor Hugo as “a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo”.ii

At the end of his book the first Justin Heazlewood muses that, “all in all, I’ve stopped caring about The Bedroom Philosopher so much … I’ll have to set up a Justin Heazlewood website. Do I need a separate Twitter?” While it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, this comment says more about Heazlewood’s Life as an Artist than the 280 pages that precede it. As part of its marketing campaign, Funemployed is being released with a “soundtrack” EP of the same name, the launch of which featured the author reading the entire book, cover to cover. The event had its own hashtag. I read about it on the Justin Heazlewood website.

 

BEING ME

Last week I dreamt that my girlfriend left me. In the dream she said that Neil Young had convinced her to do it. To be a great artist, he’d told her, there has to be great heartbreak.

I came to Funemployed with a whole set of questions, all of them self-centred and most of them unanswerable: Should art be useful or useless? Is it art if it doesn’t have an audience? What’s the difference between an artist and someone who makes art? Is what Neil Young said to my girlfriend in that dream true? Is it a metaphor? What’s so heartbreaking about being an artist? This is an unfair way to approach a book review. To fault Heazlewood for not asking the same questions would be like reading an art theory textbook and complaining: Where’s the chapter about cracking the NGV?

As an exploration of “the most traumatic aspect[s] of the creative industries”, Funemployed is comprehensive and honest and sincere. Considering its timeliness, it’s an important book. Its generous treatment of its interview subjects creates the sense of a strong, vibrant (if weary and doubt-riddled) arts community determined to persevere. However, Heazlewood’s decision to focus on how art is used rather than how art is made paints a skewed portrait of what the book’s subtitle promises: Life as an Artist in Australia. While I was reading Funemployed I assumed that its subtitle was “My Life as an Artist” (I once wrote a song with the same name) and it wasn’t until I sat down to write this review that I realised the mistake. Either way, Heazlewood’s life as an artist is far from the definitive one.

As Sarah-Jane Wentzki says, “it’s really heartbreaking to try and make money from something that you love so much”. Maybe the heartbreaking thing about being an artist is that sometimes it’s better not to be great at all.

 


i: Mavis Gallant, Paris Stories, ed. Michael Ondaatje (New York, NY: New York Review of Books), 367.

ii: Arthur C Danto, Introduction, The Unknown Masterpiece, trans. Richard Howard (New York, NY: New York Review of Books), x.


Oliver Mestitz makes music as The Finks.