Sitting in a workshop entitled 'How to have Better Conversations' I suddenly begin to feel rather ridiculous. Have we become obsessed with 'bettering' ourselves? We all know the drill. These days if we don't open up and explore/analyse/dissect every tiny subsection of our inner psyche we're deemed abnormal.
We need an answer to everything. Don't have your dream career? You can be a high flyer if you read the right books. Failing relationship? You're not trying hard enough. Unhappy? You're obviously not attending the workshops.
Maybe striving for perfection has got boring. Flicking through a weighty tome that boasts it can change my life in two weeks, I wonder why we can't just embrace the old (yet wise) words of Wordsworth, thinking of life simply as 'spots of time'; a series of moments - some happy and some sad - rather than trying to make the whole lot into one long, happy moment. After all, wouldn't happiness become boring if we felt it all the time? We'd all go around grinning inanely and weeping with joy at every turn. Yuck.
According to my enormous stack of borrowed reading material from the well stocked 'self-help' section (I think the librarian was tempted to put me on suicide watch) it seems the whole thing is about status. According to Alain de Boton (and if he doesn't know, who does?) all we really want is recognition from people. Sometimes it's as simple as an acknowledgement of our existence; a hello when you walk into the office, and sometimes it's a bit more. In an evolutionary sense we're constantly in competition with each other for wealth, resources and food but in a status sense it's about feeling valued and confident in ourselves.
I spoke to artist Kent Rogowski about his work making self-help books into art. Like me, his research in the self-help section led him to some interesting conclusions.
'I was in a bookstore and noticed that the self-help section was much larger than the art section of the store. There seemed to be a book for each moment in life, or rather, it seemed there were an endless number of books for each of those moments. The bookshelf seemed like a living catalogue of human failures and disappointments, but with little hope that things could get better.'
Constant dissatisfaction, or (in de Boton's words) 'the feeling that we might be something other than what we are' is a relatively new problem. Back in the days of old we were stuck in a particular class, born into a profession, probably devoted to religion. The one curse of social mobility and freedom of belief is that we feel we have the potential to do anything, which is an incredible gift but also creates a huge amount of pressure. 'Rags to riches' stories are circulated like modern folklore, but how many are down to pure luck? And how many more people in comparison are stranded, eternally dissatisfied and feeling they should be more than they are?
Rogowski agrees, saying what struck him most whilst collecting the books to create his art, was that they simply seem to satisfy our need for guidance. They fill a void that previously may have been filled by religion, a closer family unit or a stable, lifelong job. Looking at Rogowski's art, the collection of title pages that resonate most are from a piece entitled 'Am I the Only One'. A collage of self doubt and questions, ranging from 'Am I happy?' and 'Why am I crying?' to 'Who am I?' and 'Why do I feel the way I do?' Heartbreaking in its accuracy, these are the kind of questions we are being forced to ask ourselves. And why? Sometimes it's better just to be.
But first we need to change our way of thinking. To return to my workshop on the art of conversation, the one useful thing I did learn was that the first thing we ask people is, 'What do you do?' Of course by this we mean a career, but wouldn't it be more accurate to ask 'What do you like doing?' This is where art comes in. It doesn't have to be art in the traditional sense of painting, photography or sculpture. Our art is whatever we like doing and creating for ourselves. People often say art is a way of trying to express what we think is wrong with the world. Call it commenting, fixing, correcting, educating, rebalancing; it gives us control.
For Rogowski art is definitely a form of self-help, so much so that he has never been tempted to read any of the hundreds of self-help books he has photographed in his work.
'Really, my self-help is being an artist. My work isn't explicitly autobiographical, but it certainly has elements of myself in it, so when I am thinking about my work, it is also an act of introspection. When making art, I frequently have to approach a problem from a new direction or try to get a fresh perspective to make progress. I assume that this is precisely what effective self-help books claim to provide their readers.'
Take Tracey Emin. Her art is nothing if not confessional. She's not striving for perfection but admitting what's wrong and accepting that it's part of life. It's the crippling honesty of her quilts that I'm thinking of, proclaiming matter-of-factly, 'I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone' stitched in capitals, or, 'Sometimes nothing makes sense and everything seems far away.'
This kind of confession is so much more refreshing than the regurgitated 'wisdom' we get thrown at us from all angles. Pages and groups on Facebook churn out 'inspirational' quotes to make us feel better. Posters, pens, calendars surround us. Trying to solve the problem of happiness is quite the lucrative business.
But what if we were to just be and create things that make us happy? I'm not saying we shouldn't strive for anything, just that maybe we should put less pressure on ourselves to be something other than what we are. A fear of failure overcomes us and becomes a failure in itself. After all, we are all born with only two fears; loud noises and fear of falling. The rest we pick up along the way. I'm returning those books and turning to my art.