The idea that everyone can be an artist has always underpinned my work. It seems straightforward to me, but some people evidently find it difficult to accept. Part of the problem is the belief that developed in the early 19th century, during the movement we now call Romanticism, that an artist is a special kind of person. Why that happened is discussed in the book, and need not detain us now. The fact is that in Europe we tend to believe that artists are born, not made. That contributes to another aspect of the problem: the idea that art is good. It isn’t, or at least not by definition, intrinsically and always. It’s a carrier of meaning, and how you assess and respond to its values depends on who you are and where you stand. The representation of women in Western art is one obvious example.
Instead of thinking of art as something that is made by a special kind of people (shamans or saints) we could see it as a special kind of act—an act of creative meaning-making. As such, that act has a capability value in that it allows us do do something, But the act itself is independent from any resulting aesthetic, moral, social or political value. It follows that the act can be made by anyone, even if some people do it more consistently, more skilfully and more successfully (whatever we might at different times take that to mean) than others. The key is to distinguish the value of the act from the value of what it creates.
This becomes less abstract if you think about cooking. We all need to eat, and most of us enjoy food. But we have different relationships with it, for instance in terms of what, when and how we eat. We also have different tastes, often shaped by the food we were given when we were children. Most people cook at home, for themselves and for others. Many people cook professionally, and some win prizes, wealth and fame. My version of macaroni cheese isn’t going to impress anybody, but my children, who grew up on it, still like it and I enjoy making it for the pleasure it gives them. But I’m not going to take it to Masterchef. My cooking is as simple as you get, probably because I’ve never been much interested in food. I know what I like and I’m happy with it (which might be how lots of people feel about art). I enjoy the good meals my friends make, and those I sometimes get in a restaurant. I admire the extraordinary creations you see on cookery programmes—even if they stretch my idea of what food is. But then some art does the same. Actually, despite my limited interest in food, I do like cookery programmes for their demonstration of craft, ingenuity, culture, enthusiasm and standards—the same qualities you see in good community art projects.
Michel Roux and I are at opposite ends of the kitchen, but when we cook, we are in the same place, doing the same thing for the same reason. Everybody can cook. Everybody can learn to cook better. It’s not magic, and no-one is excluded.
But nobody is obliged to cook. People are not artists—or cooks—except by intention. Those who believe in the value of art, or of home cooking, are entitled to advocate their views but they must also respect other people’s choices. So I don’t say that everybody is an artist, only that they can be. It’s a matter of intention. To act as an artist, or a cook, you have to begin by wanting to.
(And I still can’t cook my own poached eggs.)