Austin Spare Exhibition: Do You Want To Be Happy Or Interesting?

Austin Spare Exhibition: Do You Want To Be Happy Or Interesting?


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beefcake3It is possible that I am giving you the impression that my family is some kind of mini-Antipodean-Illuminati but my brother has just spent the last four days in the hallway of a hospital in rural Malaysia, dropping in and out of consciousness from a bout of severe meningitis.

His insurance company has finally transferred him via a four hour ambulance ride to Kuala Lumpur and once he is well enough to travel, he and his girlfriend will fly back to Australia, ending their year motorcycling around South East Asia.

Once he has gotten over the realisation that he is not actually going to die, my brother is going to be none too happy about this end to his adventure, I think.

Besides, he nearly dies all the time. Seriously, he’s like a one-man installment of the Final Destination film series. He has nearly been abducted, attacked by sharks, pounded to death on an offshore reef by enormous waves. He has never met a tree he didn’t fall out of, he flipped my old car on his first night of his high school pizza delivery job (emerging completely unscathed through the driver side window), he breaks his bones like he thinks they will grant him wishes, he rode his motorcycle up a wall before he even got it out of the shop in Vietnam.

That is -hand to Gods- a snapshot. (Mum aged 160 years instantly when he announced he was going to spend a year riding an old Soviet motorcycle around landmine-ridden, mosquito-borne-disease-infested Third World countries.)

He will tell you he took a year off because he really doesn’t like working. I know him better than that so I can confidently say that it is more because he wants his life to be interesting rather than happy. He mistakes his natural laziness for the erroneous belief that he wants to live the life of a retiree.

How do I know this?

Because it turns out that he has been sick for most of the time he has been on his adventure. Not meningitis sick but unwell enough to have to clog himself up with immodium for the frequent nine hour “bus rides” (clapped out minivans with twenty people on them) between destinations. And still he extended his trip rather than shorten it.

Also because he fills his spare time with adventure rather than mall-walking. His last holiday before he went away was on a catamaran hundreds of miles of Australia’s east coast; above a reef in the middle of deep blue pacific where the sharks were stacked like pancakes.

So he is not lazy. He is just a bit lost. Which is absolutely okay. He doesn’t completely enjoy what he does for work so he will probably change careers next year. I tell our mother this is fine because the workforce has irreparably changed in the last ten years and continuity of employment means nothing in a post Great Recession world but it never sinks in. Mothers worry.

You already know which one you want

My brother and his girlfriend are currently planning to move to London at the beginning of the next year. As much as it pains me to say this because I would just adore having them both in the same city as me this is probably a bad idea.

Because Britain is going to remain fucked for quite some time. Higher taxes, drastic cuts to services, half a million public sector jobs lost in the next five years with very little scope for the private sector to absorb them, aircraft carriers filled with French aircraft because we won’t have any that can use them, axing of child benefits.

Now is not the time to show up with absolutely no UK work history -especially if you have a public sector background. (He does.) And forget the classic “work in a pub and travel Europe for a year” combination so beloved of my countrymen. The pound just isn’t strong enough, meaning Europe is too expensive to visit on service industry wages.

In the meantime, Australia has been universally acknowledged as the best managed country going into and coming out of the Great Recession. We had better banking rules and there is something to be said for having a countryside made entirely of gold and uranium. Does wonderful things to your share market. Especially if you can count China as a neighbour.

There was barely a recessionary blip, unemployment is tiny and shrinking, and the Aussie dollar is now at parity with the greenback. On the morning news programmes they have been openly asking why there would be any Australians living in Europe at the moment.

I ask myself this question a lot.

If I moved back to nearby New Zealand, I would instantly land a job at the top of my field, buy a house, adopt some gaybies and ever after want for nothing.

But I need to stop asking myself this question because there is something I would want for.

The exhibit itself

Austin’s lucky I made it at all because the exhibit is in the fucking ghetto. I don’t usually get any further south than Borough Market. If it was anyone else I would have scoffed and said I’d think about seeing it once they managed to exhibit in “proper London” (ie north of the river).

But of course I am glad I did because it was wonderful.

I can remember downloading a .txt version of Anathema of Zos from my home town in regional Australia using my 28.8 modem at the tender age of thirteen. Never in my wildest teenage dreams did I think I would be working in the neighbourhood where Spare was born and visiting an exhibition in the borough he spent his adult life in. These were Spare originals! And they are amazing.

Here are some things I learnt from the exhibit and from the documentary and talk by the always-awesome Geraldine Beskin, owner of Atlantis Bookshop (a regular stop on my weekends in the city):

  • Spare and Crowley probably were lovers for a time, after all. Geraldine bases this on some annotations she found on one of Crowley’s poems, but also on Spare’s initial impression of Crowley as literally the first person to understand the full scope of his early work. The prevailing theory is that Crowley hit on Spare but was turned down. Geraldine says no.
  • Kenneth’s Grant’s wife found out Spare was still alive and living nearby because of an interview he gave to a local magazine. Spare was obsessed with self-promotion via newspapers. Which indicates that he didn’t consciously reject the establishment, he would have gladly re-entered it had an invitation been forthcoming. But without that chance discovery we wouldn’t have ‘Spare The Occultist’ today.
  • He did dozens and dozens of self-portraits. The exhibition says this is due to his “obsession with themes of ageing and mortality.” Yeah, maybe. But it is blindingly obvious that they were meant to be viewed together. Seeing them all hanging side by side, you can clearly see that it’s part of his exploration of multiple selves. It’s like Cézanne’s doubt but turned inwards. It’s incredible. I base that on the fact that he also liked to paint idealised and distorted images of celebrity.
  • He was a wacky liar like Crowley. He pretended to be the sole survivor of a torpedoed ship during the war and that he spent the night under a pile of dead bodies at the Somme even though he never saw action. He also exaggerated his story about how he turned down a commission from Hitler to do a portrait (true) by pretending he went to Germany and met him face to face before turning him down. (False.) It turns out the German ambassador had purchased one of his paintings which he showed to Hitler back in Berlin because -as you’ll recall- the Führer was a pieceofshit artist and fancied that he had taste. Still a cool story, though.
  • Literally everyone was connected to everyone and everything good that happened in early twentieth century London in what Geraldine marvellously described as “pebbles and ripples”. We really need to be more proud -and more aware- of the impact our sorcerous forbears had on global culture.

A happy or interesting life? Affirm your choice

So I proudly proclaim that I want an interesting life rather than a happy one. An interesting life means living in my Turangawaewae, it means seeing exhibitions by my heroes, it means travelling back to Paris this week for work (radio silence alert).

Are you wondering where you stand? Let Penelope help you the way she helped me.

And don’t try to pretend that living an interesting life is what makes you happy. It’s a cop-out answer. Choosing happiness -as Penelope has- doesn’t mean your life is boring. It’s about whether you want the best of everything more than you want to be happy. As she write:

“And if you can’t understand this you merely reveal how little you know about the world. I have no more patience for people telling me I can get great eyebrows in Wisconsin, there is great shopping in Wisconsin, etc. There simply isn’t. And it’s okay. People don’t live in Wisconsin because of that. People live in Wisconsin because the lifestyle is easy – family is here, personal history is here, things generally are fine. Nothing is fine in NYC. It’s very challenging. Every single day.”

I understand exactly what she means. Replace NYC with London (they’re practically sister cities anyway) and I am right there with her. New Zealand is an amazing place to live. But you don’t get Spare exhibitions and you can’t take a train to Paris. So I agree with her analysis and use it to justify my taking the opposite position.

Spare certainly chose an interesting life over a happy one. When he exhibited at the Royal Academy at just seventeen years of age (the youngest ever to do so), the consensus opinion was that he was probably a genius. Give him another season or two to get the “grotesque, raw, animalistic, tribal” influences out of his draughtsmanship and he will go very far. Edwardian sensibilities were a lot more optimistic, they valued aesthetic beauty over emotional impact. His artwork, simply put, made them uncomfortable.

Except he didn’t “get it out of his system”. He delved further into it. He self-published, he created his own complete system of magic, he did his own thing. As a result of this fully conscious choice, he never got the fame and commercial success he felt he deserved (and always secretly coveted).

It’s nice to see that you live by the same guidelines as your heroes. That’s what they are for, after all.

Now I just need to make sure I don’t die in penury of appendicitis like he did.

13 Comments

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  1. 3
    Hierax

    I don’t know. I think Spare was happier being “interesting” than he would be if he tried to “sell out”. Aren’t you equating “being happy” with “being smoothly adapted to society” and “being interesting” to “following your own drum”, or in other words, your “True Will”? How can somebody be true happy if he is bored with himself?
    All the same, cool post, and wonderful Spare pictures.

  2. 5
    Gordon

    @Hierax I’m not sure that analogy is accurate. If it were, everyone in NYC would be a free thinking rebel rather than a member of orthodox modern society.

    In fact, choosing happiness and living on your own terms is a far more economically radical thing to do.

    I would say the decision between following your own drum or following the herd happens BEFORE you make the happiness/interesting decision… A lot of people’s drums lead them to happiness, after all.

    The decisions are perhaps conflated in Spare’s case because he was a draughtsman and a painter… Whereas I am neither.

  3. 6
    Ivy

    I think clarity of language is very important for this issue and that the question as currently stated misses the mark:

    First, it’s not “do I want to be happy or interesting?” it’s “do I want to be happy or interestED?”

    Interesting externalizes…
    It means interesting to other people. A witty conversationalist. A fine hostess. Conversant in the topics of the day. POPULAR. Interested internalizes… It means engaged, affected, or involved. The result of seeking out interesting experiences, information, and environments.

    I also think that the question can be clarified better as: “do I want to be CONTENT or interested?”

    Contentment is defined as a sense of pleasant satisfaction with the current context of your life. It’s passive. Happiness, on the other hand, is defined as either a state of contentment OR “a pleasurable or satisfying experience” (Merriam-Webster online). It’s the second definition that I find interesting. It implies that while you can’t experience contentment without happiness, you can experience happiness without contentment.

    That means that while there’s a flavor of happiness reserved for people who are happy with their “as is” state, there’s still happiness for those who are hungry for experience and change. Those who want to be INTERESTED. But this kind of happiness isn’t always as simple or comfortable as contentment and stasis.

  4. 7
    Deb

    It’s . . .a little disconcerning how much we’re on the same page. I just basically posted a more garbled version of this before reading you, tranced off my ass from listening to Rabbit Heart like far too many times.

    Interesting, always interesting. And it sounds like our sibs both like to try to kill us by their adventures as much as possible, my sister was a flight attendant until v. recently, draw your own conclusions. ;p

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