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Kent Nerburn – Dancing with the Gods

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Tender and beautifully written guide for anyone working in the arts.

Image of Kent Nerburn – Dancing with the Gods

Private Eye doesn’t like artists – from its Young British Artists comic strip to Pseuds Corner, Luvvies, and vicious book reviews. Perhaps the Eye is just reflecting the public perception that anyone with artistic aspirations is a self-absorbed time-waster. There’s a famous (alleged) quote from Winston Churchill at the height of the war. When Churchill was asked to cut arts funding to support the war effort, he replied: “Then what are we fighting for?”

It’s not that people in the arts are just so sensitive but they often are thin-skinned, troubled by their career trajectory, uncertain about their work, and prickly about criticism. It can be debilitating.

Of course working in an unsafe factory or dysfunctional office can be debilitating too. But often in the arts work can be an isolating experience where self-doubt and overthinking can really mess with your head. As Kent Nerburn has it, “the life of an artist is not easy. The world will not understand you. It will praise you too much and respect you too little.”

No one who is an artist or works in that field as an actor, dancer, or writer can pretend that they’ve taken an easy option. Low pay, rejections, the ups and downs of the most precarious profession are not for everyone.

A self-help book for artists sounds like it might be a recipe from hell – the sort of thing Private Eye would love to rubbish – but Nerburn (sculptor and author) has written the most wonderful little book full of insights and hard truths. Yes, there are a few cringeworthy sections about listening to your inner urges and “the pitfalls of easy success”, but on practical ways of dealing with the loneliness and broken promises with which anyone involved in the arts (whether as performer or administrator) will have to contend, the book is spot on.

“There are some [artists] who are like batteries: they cannot produce energy unless they are filled with acid”. Sad but true. Or take this advice on collaborating with other people: “blending yourself with another in any aspect of life requires a great deal of trust. You make yourself vulnerable. You submerge your personal needs to a larger whole in the hope of creating something that transcends you both. When this trust is violated, the feeling of betrayal is equal in proportion to the amount of trust that was given”.

In this little gem of a book Nerburn touches on everything from learning your craft to dealing with failure, but there’s also much to inspire the reader. He writes unsentimentally on the power of art to keep the heart young and the wisdom, insight, and magic that art can bestow, not to mention the joy of staying curious and using your imagination.

The book can also be seen as a cry for people to break out of their square-cornered lives, to embrace artistic experience, to drop the guard of cynicism. In praise of the artist – the painter, the dancer, the musician – Nerburn writes: “who else can go to the farthest reaches of the imagination to bring back new meaning and put it into physical form? Who else can show us that nothing is insignificant, no one is without a story, and can call us to look at the everyday with a compassionate heart? Who else can make us pause in a headlong rush through time to look closely at a moment, hallowing it with our attention? Who else can reinvent the ordinary?”