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  • Writer's picturePhil McLoughlin

The art of the labouring classes

I have run almost every day for the past sixty years. I say almost for my career has been peppered with injuries, mostly from overuse. I wasn’t built to run long distances, but it never stopped me.

A journalist once asked “do you run to keep fit?” I said ‘No’. “Are you in training for a race?” I said ‘No’. A bit frustrated he then asked “well, what’s the point?” The answer was simple, “there is no point. Running is the point”.

Running is something I do for it’s own sake. Running is freedom. It is ‘natural’. In searing sunshine or pouring rain it is just me and the world outside. But I am not trying to prove anything. There is no contest with the elements, far less my body. I could never explain it. There would be no point. I just love running. One day I will be unable to run. But today I can. Everything passes. Nothing lasts.

I paint and draw for much the same reason. I have done this for over sixty years too, but took a 30-year sabbatical to become a writer and academic. But ‘it’ (whatever it is) pulled me back again. Like running, there is no ‘point’. I just love painting. Painting is the point. One day I shall no longer be able to make anything new. But, today I can. Get on with it. Nothing lasts.

The journalist’s question about the ‘point ‘of running is like questions people ask about my paintings. “So, what is this painting about?” My standard reply is: “Interesting question. So what do you think it is about?” I may think I know what a painting is about but there would be no point in trying to explain it. That was why I made the painting in the first place, so others could make their own ‘explanation’ or find their own ‘meaning’. I made it for you!

These questions about the ‘point’ of running or painting, suggest that such activities need to have a purpose. They should achieve or realise something that did not exist before. But why can’t we just do things – run, paint, visit exhibitions- for their own sake? I never find it easy to explain why I love a Velasquez painting. I just love it for itself; for what it is, though I cannot explain fully what ‘it’ is. There would be no point.

My grandfather once told me that someone had called him a ‘pen pusher’: a stout put-down. My grandfather laughed. “No, you never push a pen, you always pull it. The same with a pencil” This probably confused his critical friend but he had made an important point. Making art – with a pen, pencil or brush- involves pulling rather than pushing. Materials are pulled over a surface. The act of pulling leaves marks which, gradually, assume a significance of their own. This labour of pulling becomes the work itself.

My grandfather came from the labouring classes. He earned his living through his labour. One could say that the point of his work was to put food on the table or pay the rent. True. But he also loved work. When unemployed or off work he would go looking for things to do. He loved work for its own sake. Work – the thing in itself.

If that journalist asked me today what do I ‘do’ and ‘why’ do I do it, I would probably say: “I am a labourer. I pull stuff about and, eventually, an image of some thing appears. I don’t actually make the image – it just appears, over time. It becomes the thing in itself. I am just the labourer. As to ‘why’ - well, I just love doing this. There is no other point.

Of course, all this might seem a bit pretentious. Easier just to say: I am an artist. Art is a labour of love.

Copyright - Phil McLoughlin 2020.

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Micheil Ramsaidh
Micheil Ramsaidh
18 may 2020

I've always loved your writing Phil, since the first article I ever read of yours. I recently quoted in class from your obituary to Annie Alstchul (ref. "...the grande-dame of gentle troublemaking..."), words as art. Your writing has always made me think, caused me to evaluate my view or understanding and I did often, but also did not always, agree...but was always provoked to think. You have lost none of that and whilst I am no artist, this piece made me think and your art, when I've looked at it, has too...I've sought your meaning it in it; here you make it clear that was my mistake and it is ok for me to simply make my own, for m…

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