I really discourage my son from becoming an artist

Interview with Harm van den Dorpel on "having kids in the art world"

Noam in front of his dads sculpture 

What does it mean today to have a life with kids, to have a life in art, to live a life? Why are children and the artist's life so hard to unite? Or is this a false assumption? Spike Art Daily dedicates a series of interviews to the art industry’s problematic relationship with its offspring. In this interview, artist Harm van den Dorpel (34) talks about shared realities, feelings of responsibility, and the two main rules of having kids in the art world.

 

Dear Harm, how old is your child? 

Noam is 3.5 now. He was born in Amsterdam, and we moved to Berlin when he was about half a year old. This is where we still live (my wife, my son, and I).

How has your way of working changed through the birth of your child? 

My conception of time and urgency have changed a lot. It’s difficult to say exactly which changes correlate to becoming a dad though. Without children people tend to grow up to some extent too.

In general, before we got Noam I think my attitude towards making art and being in the art world had often been about escaping the current situation out of dissatisfaction. Feelings of drama, ecstasy, melancholy, escapism, intoxication, nightlife, working towards the possibility of losing oneself in the experience of the work of art, or losing oneself in creation. Because our "current situation" was not exciting enough I would try to create an alternative. FOMO. That kind of thing.

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Since Noam's birth, I have realised this isn't sustainable. This is because of love for him and the desire to be with him in our shared reality. It's also a feeling of responsibility and the feeling that it is actually not really possible to productively live in this other reality. I think this translated to me shifting the focus from suggesting an alternative to understanding the current situation. And from this understanding, hopefully an increased awareness will generate a transformation of reality as well.

My daughter is rarely excited about contemporary art in galleries. She finds most of it very boring and sits down on the floor to paint her own work. I've just brought her to bed, and reading children's stories in the dark made me soft, dizzy, and tired. It's quite hard to return to the desk now.

My son sleeps at 8 pm. Your daughter is 9, right?

She's 7, but very tall. At the moment we're learning about the clock and mathematics. I'm very bad at maths. Her mother is also, and she is also.

Haha. My son is learning to read a bit; he was learning how to read my name. And with the "H" he said: that's where helicopters land. My son likes it when people paint for him. But I really discourage him from becoming an artist.

Why?

If it’s his calling then of course I support it. I just hope he'll think he needs to do something else. I can't recommend the artist life. 

When did you decide to become an artist?

In an old fashioned and romantic way I think I've always been one. I even tried to quit, but couldn’t. 

In the system of art, the roles "artist" and "father/mother" are still pitted against each other as oppositions. On the one hand there's creativity, desire, and freedom; on the other hand, responsibility, rules, love, and boredom. Why do you think a system so centred on progression still holds on to such outdated ideas?

I think the reason why the art world hangs on to those old ideas is also kind of accurate. I mean, the organisation and structure of my life has changed quite thoroughly, and it's hard to understand that if you don't have kids. I had no clue before I became a dad. And now sometimes people look at me when I'm dancing intoxicated late at night, like: "is that a responsible dad?" I just hate that attitude. But yeah, I haven't gone to Berghain since my son was born. I guess it's a question of optimisation in time-management and a shifting of priorities. 

I think it's exactly about this feeling on the dance floor: to be in a room with so many people who seem to be very much like you (in terms of work/interests/intelligence) but are also super different, only because they don't have kids. And you can be sure that none of them have kids. Isabelle Graw said something interesting last week about the fear of becoming invisible with kids, because your presence at public events is so reduced. 

Artists are expected to be in an eternal rumspringa. 

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It also seems like you are only supposed to have kids at a time when you are "done", i.e.: successful. This makes having kids in the art world surprisingly hard.

It assumes that having a child prevents you from peaking. But I believe it is also a bit true. I think for many "young" artists it's important to relate work and lifestyle to peers. When you make an exhibition, friends come to your opening and comment. There's a notion of a "scene" and belonging to something bigger. I think this is quite strong in Berlin. When I became a dad and moved to Berlin, I had the feeling that I could not and did not want to be part of such a group. 

The origin of my work was rooted in this so-called "second wave" of net art, but this group of artists had fallen apart and most them dispersed into the regular "gallery art" world. Then the question emerged: who am I making my art for if not for my peers? Not the market, that's for sure. But why bother then? 
It took me a while to reformulate my own agency. Being an artist should be rooted in the inner self. It's about self confidence and not needing the approval of others. This is also how I want to raise my son.

In the art world only gallerists are supposed to have kids. Very few people our age (mid to end 20s) have kids. The other rule is that you can have kids once you hit 40. 

Poor kids. But it's true in a sense. Life gets harder as a parent. And you can’t move as freely as before. You also need a bit more money; it's less bohemian. And for us men it's easier than for women, I think. The last months of pregnancy and then birth and breastfeeding are very demanding. 

What I also find really strange is that in our world it is supposed to be "cooler" to be a young dad than it is to be a young mother. I don't get that. I'm not an artist, but I write texts. That seems similar insofar as that what you need for work is not only calm, concentration, and focus but also excitement, intellectual exchange, and social intoxication. You don't want to be focused all the time. Because being "out of focus" is so important.

Also for kids.

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Yes!

They need to see their parents being weird sometimes. Weird as in loose, enjoying things. It's also always assumed that the "adventure" of being an artist can't be shared by children. Like it's two things. My son is greatly benefiting from all the travel I get to do. And I find him very inspiring, although this is not literally visible in my work. It's funny how I often find it hard to remember what it was like before I became a dad. I keep asking myself: "What was I so busy with?" 

Harm van den Dorpel is represented by Neumeister Bar-Am.

Read the other interviews from the series "Kids in the Art World" with Chus Martínez and Isabelle Graw and DIS Magazine.

 

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