Auerbach on making art: ‘enjoyable; but that does not mean that it is not difficult’

One of the things that I have been listening to a lot of late is This Cultural Life, ‘in-depth conversations with some of the world’s leading artists and creatives.’

It can be enjoyable listening, but I sometimes wonder why I put myself through it. Hearing supremely successful people talk about their craft, and the time that they spend dedicated to it, could be experienced as maddening, especially when – for the vast majority of people working at creative practice – they are having to do so alongside a career to pay the bills.

A recent (wonderful) episode with Frank Auerbach had him recounting advice from the philosopher father of one of his sitters:

‘He laid down a distinction between death-avoiding behaviour – all that we do to survive, save money, pay our bills – and life-enhancing behaviour… and most of spend far too much time on death-avoiding behaviour, and not enough on life-enhancing.’

How to spend more time on life-enhancing behaviour? As I say, listening to artists in episode after episode repeat the same thing in different words could be less than life-enhancing… But I try to use the programme as a provocation, a sharp nudge to keep reflecting on where energies go, on how to find more re-creation.

In the new book on AI I outline why this is going to become a pressing sociocultural and political question. Elon Musk is fond of saying that AI could be the end of work.

Any cursory history of technology and its promises to relieve us of our labour will tell you that this is nonsense. But AI will offer profound choices about the nature of our labour.

Work done by Microsoft on their new AI ‘Co-pilot’ assistant embedded in their Office suite suggests that many workers could save themselves 10 hours a month. But what should be done with those 10 hours? Should companies celebrate this innovation and encourage people to go running, or volunteer help at a scout troop, or take up the piano… or should they increase the amount of work expected because more can now be done?

In short, will AI lead to more life-enhancing, or more death-avoiding? That is a question of management culture, of policy and governance – and of people speaking the hell up and not having a future foisted onto them.

But Auerbach also said something interesting about art and labour. Asked if he enjoyed painting – he works 7 days a week and has had the same studio in Camden for over 50 years – he replied:

“I enjoy it, but that does not mean that it is not difficult”

It is struggle. But in struggle we can find meaning. And art without struggle – the great promise of new AI tools like OpenAI’s new text-to-video system, Sora – is that truly life-enhancing?

Prompt: Photorealistic closeup video of two pirate ships battling each other as they sail inside a cup of coffee. Source:

I admit: I find writing difficult. I find it frustrating that I haven’t been able to enjoy the cultural capital of famous relatives or close relationships with influential people, and know that part of that frustration is at my own choices that have failed to see the doors that were there for me to open towards those things – doors that others have not even had the chance to walk close to.

But mostly I find it enjoyable, because it is a struggle. Auerbach continues:

“Every painting has been a surprise to me… if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have let it free. And what would have been the point?”

A podcast episode I recorded recently – Perspectives on Pages – out shortly – gets into this more. To put Auerbach’s words my own way: I write to discover, not to reveal. I write because I don’t know, and need to work hard to dig and excavate – work that is time-consuming and often fraught with failure. But that’s where the gold is.

That’s why, decades in, seven books in and still having to pay the bills, I’m more excited than ever about the work-in-progress.

More news on that soon. In the meantime, get busy living’.


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