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The Posh Pen Paradox: when writers and artists fear their tools

Reluctant to use a fancy new notebook? Feel unworthy of expensive paints? There’s a psychological reason – and it’s affecting your work.

For me it all began when I was doing art at school. My class was in the middle of painting our final A Level pieces, and at the start of the session, we were notified by our tutor that there were some new paint brushes available to use.

Counterintuitively, I felt fearful of the shiny new tools, and instead grabbed myself a handful of ancient barely functional brushes with loose ferrules and missing bristles that were in a pot by the sink.

I noticed that most of my classmates chose to use the old brushes as well.

This strange occurrence happened again when my birthday came around and I was gifted a beautiful set of new oil paints by my Nan, and yet when the time came for me to paint, I found myself feeling unworthy of my lovely new oils, and instead opted for cheapo acrylics.

This ended up becoming a vicious circle of using poor quality materials, producing bad quality work and then feeling unworthy of using good quality materials because I had produced bad quality work.

Around the art studios at the University of Chichester, I brought up this topic with my fellow students, and they told me that often they have felt fearful of using their good paints or starting work on a new blank canvas in case they create something they dislike.

Money plays into this fear, with the idea that you should only invest expensive materials in to a piece of work that will turn out to be a worthwhile investment, and as mere students we think: Why bother?

I wondered if other people share my hang-up about “high quality” equipment recently over Twitter. It turns out this phobia around using decent equipment is widespread, as I got an overwhelming response from more than my usual 40 followers.

Plenty of people, working across various industries, have this problem and ended up getting in touch with me to give me their own personal anecdotes relating to my tweets.

“I definitely do this with woodwork,” was one response. “Used to think I was just cheap, but I’m even hesitant to use nice wood I’ve sawn myself that’s cost me nothing.” Another told me: “A friend bought me a beautiful personalised hand-made notebook. Can’t write in it. Too gorgeous.”

“Totally relatable. New, ready stretched canvas is the worst. I’m more likely to do my best work over an old painting,” said one artist. “At school I was afraid to write on the first page of a new exercise book because I felt my work wouldn’t be good enough. Now I leave the first page blank and start on page 3,” said another respondent. “Have many notebooks that are too nice for me to write in. Trying to get over it, slowly.”

Celebrity psychotherapist Philippa Perry tells me “It’s the opposite of the L’Oréal ad: ‘Because you’re worth it’,” when I ask why we might not feel worthy of decent art materials, and how to overcome this crippling feeling that hinders our work.

“It’s because what we imagine that fresh canvas could hold never holds up to what we paint on to it,” she says. “Amazing imagination is always going to be disappointed by the reality. The thing to remember is, although what you produce isn’t as good as what you imagine it to be, it is still amazing to someone else. So you are worth it after all.”

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game