What Do You Mean I'm Emerging?

Reflecting on the Condition of the “Emerging” Artist

What Do You Mean I'm Emerging?

Illustration by Lucia Gaia

I am a writer. I decided to call myself that, officially but privately, when I was accepted onto the Prose Fiction MA at University of East Anglia in 2017. I made the decision on the assumption that if other writers took me seriously enough to allow me into their secret literary circle, then I couldn’t be that bad. This idea was inflated during the first semester by constant reminders of the course’s prowess (and the list of illustrious alumni whose names have been repossessed by literary mythology and detached from living, breathing individuals); by older students who seemed impressed by my relative youth (I was 24 at the time); and by the vague, but seemingly guaranteed promise of publication and entry into the “real” world of writing.

When I finished the course, I went back to my ordinary life and job, where I continued to work furiously on my novel fuelled by the references, inspirations and expertise that I’d eagerly lapped up over the course of a year, but also by the pressing anxiety that “it” needed to happen before I was thirty. What “it” was, I’m not entirely sure, but I can tell you it hasn’t happened yet; I’m still writing the novel four years later, and whilst I have pages upon pages stored in my Google drive, all I have to publicly show for that time spent is less than a handful of short story publications. This means, from a public point of view, I (basically) don’t exist as a writer, and I’m certainly not emerging.

When the word “emerging” is used in relation to artists, musicians and writers, it implies the process of rising from a state of obscurity into one of prominence; from darkness into light. This framing is seductive for the artist, carrying with it an atmospheric buzz, a whispering of potential, but it’s also infuriatingly vague. Where are we emerging from, and where to? When does it begin or end? Who judges or validates the process?

It’s a term that also tends to connote youth – something fresh and raw, and therefore, desirable. Think of the countless 30 under 30 lists that set an arbitrary benchmark, and in doing so, brazenly ignore the classist, sexist and racist implications of early success, which typically requires the individual being fortunate enough to have been born into specific circumstances that provide them with financial support and/or access to the “right” people. This is even more true if you’re an artist (of any kind). In writing this piece, for example, I’m made acutely aware of my own privilege in having been able to afford to further my practice through an MA course. Most artists have to make their art in between paid work, and commitments to family and friends. Despite this, it’s hard not to dream of being discovered and appreciated for raw genius.

"Becoming a successful artist is very much like a lottery in which you work for years just to get a ticket,” begins an article published by Apollo in 2015, which goes onto discuss the challenges of getting noticed in a crowd of other aspiring artists. The same article likens a specific gallerist and art dealer to “an energetic fairy godmother figure” who is one amongst many people and organisations dedicated to "nurturing talent”. This could, however, be modified to “nurturing the right kind of talent” which is often validated according to its synchronicity with pre-existing notions of success. Of course, recognition is required for an artist to sustain a living from their work, and that process is hugely accelerated if you are lucky enough to find someone who also believes in what you’re doing and is also influential enough to open a few doors along the way. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that, but my issue is with how the conditions of emergence mystify and elevate the process, while simultaneously exploiting and disempowering the artist as an individual.

Social media has changed this somewhat, particularly for visual artists, who are increasingly self-promoting and selling their works directly through platforms such as Instagram. Unfortunately for writers, text doesn’t translate as well to image-based platforms, and getting published in even the smallest of literary journals is highly competitive. Added to that, writing a novel (or any piece, for that matter) can be a lengthy process with the risk that no-one will ever read, or care about the end product. Still, platforms such as Twitter can be an easy and quick way to catch short glimpses into the industry and garner a sense of community. But, of course, Twitter-fame is a poor approximation for its real-world counterpart, and while these platforms promote an idea of freedom, they still operate on a quantifiable system of validation: likes, comments, shares, retweets, follows. In other words, social media is, in itself, a social ecosystem with its own stratification that can also be difficult to escape.

To emerge as an artist, therefore, is a process that happens publicly; you cannot emerge on your own terms. You can’t decide when it happens, or is happening; what the results or consequences are, or crucially, what happens next. All of those things are decided by industry “tastemakers” — literary agents, publishers, gallerists, publicists, art dealers. They decide when you’ll be seen, as much as they decide when people should stop looking. They decide this because they have the access and means to sustain their own careers and that of others. Essentially, it’s about the direction of capital, and a crucial part of this structure is the aspirational narrative arc.

I write arc specifically because there is an implied, linear journey which begins with emerging (this is a story of visibility rather than life and death). It is the same narrative that’s most obviously exploited by advertising, but it also underpins all creative industries and determines the public success of an artist. For a person to be an artist in a public sense, they have to have the evidence to back it up, and not just the thing itself but also worthy, outside approval such as publications, collectors, interviews, podcast appearances, brand collaborations, and event invitations. From the most cynical perspective: to achieve success is to embody that narrative and risk the loss of an “authentic self.” But this is where it gets a little foggy and anxiety-inducing: Is there such a thing as an authentic self, an authentic artist or even authentic art? And is it inauthentic to aspire to recognition? To want to make money out of your art?

The aspirational narrative is fundamentally rigid and exclusive; it doesn’t care about these kinds of questions and it ignores anyone who doesn’t naturally fit into its prescribed roles, including artists who sit outside of the traditional canon and are often are placed within categories that refer not to their success or career trajectory, but to their nationality, race, gender or even sexual orientation. On the one hand, this process of categorisation is well meant in that it acknowledges difference and attempts to address an imbalance, but at the same time, this way of grouping people together flattens individuality. It’s a problem that many artists negotiate — explicitly or implicitly — through their work, but to do so they are often required to manipulate their practices to find a space within predetermined delineations.

During a series of industry evenings on my masters course in which we were introduced to various publishers and literary agencies, a fellow student asked how important it was for a writer to include information about themselves in the covering emails for submissions, to which one agent replied that they all wanted to find a penniless, starving writer who’d be working away for years in the dark. It was framed as a joke, but it points to another form of brand-building which is based around a lack of exposure, or a “brandlessness”. This is effectively a kind of “saviour” narrative in which the exhausted, floundering artist is finally lifted up by embracing arms and revealed to the world. Any article you read about Shuggie Bain (the novel that won this year’s Booker Prize), for example, mentions its numerous rejections by publishers. You could argue that such stories can have the positive effect of providing other writers/artists with hope and motivation to keep going, but this information isn’t shared for that purpose; it’s used to quantify the book’s worth to the consumer and as such, the artist’s actual, lived experience becomes divorced from the individual, manipulated and absorbed into the wider “brand” narrative.

This is beautifully explained by John Berger in the final essay of Confabulations, in which he suggests that the language used by the media to present and classify the world “is a voice at home with digits but not with living or suffering bodies. It does not speak of regrets or hopes.” Crucially, it is a language that signifies the restrictive conditions of an artist’s emergence, which will always be at odds with any kind of art because art is a process that naturally and necessarily resists quantifiability and containment. But how can any of this be remedied when the commodification of people, products and practices is fundamental to capitalism?

We might not have the ability to instantly enact the reordering of this system, but we can sharpen our awareness of the kinds of narratives that we are consuming, embodying, and reiterating. Language is the way we shape, communicate and refine our understanding of our world, but it is also something that we learn and absorb. It is recycled and constantly renewed with collective and individual meaning. That is to say, language is as malleable as it is restrictive. We, as individuals, are the ones who control what words we use, and in what context, and this is how we can, and will continue to resist.

Millie Walton

is a London-based fiction and arts writer. She is a graduate of the Prose Fiction MA at University of East Anglia, and is currently working on her first novel alongside a collaborative project, exploring notions of place through writing, drawing, architecture and photography.

All contributions from Millie Walton

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