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Reader Recommends: How To Be An Artist

We’re asking Unit Editions readers to nominate a single favourite art/design book and tell us why it remains important to them. It can be any book, from any time – from well-known tomes to unsung classics.

For our second post in the series, designer and educator Nigel Ball tells us about one of his favourite publications: Bill Drummond’s How To Be An Artist, published by Penkiln Burn in 2002:

“This book is a work of fiction,” claims Bill Drummond on page one of How To Be An Artist. “You may think you can detect the odd verifiable fact. If you do, so be it, it’s not my concern”. Even the title tries to confound the reader with the back cover stating this is not “a step-by-step guide to being an artist of any kind”.

As a way to pique interest, these are not bad opening salvos. What follows is a tale of a road trip from Southampton to Dounreay, where Drummond attaches ‘For Sale’ notices to railings, fences and sundry posts, advertising that he has an artwork by Richard Long to sell for $20,000. Along the way he gives impromptu talks at various locations, honing his sales pitch, grappling with what owning art means and why he has fallen out of love with Long’s picture.

It is a highly entertaining read with Drummond tying himself up in pseudo art-critic knots, as he pontificates about a range of subjects to anyone who will listen, his viewpoints routinely shot down in flames by those he meets along the way, as well as by himself.

In this, How To Be An Artist presents its author as confused, contradictory, and at times arrogant; all accolades you quickly learn Drummond is happy to perpetuate as part of ‘the art debate’.

Published in 2002 by Penkiln Burn, for me this book preceded a personal interest in psychogeographic writing and photography, one that has gone on to influence some of my own research projects.

In Drummond we get someone who mocks latter-day canons of the genre before they have even been published, and I hold both author and book as important pin-pricks to the pretensions of the art world – lightning conductors grounding me from taking this stuff far too seriously.

Nigel Ball is a graphic designer, design educator and writer. He is head of arts and course leader for graphic design at the University of Suffolk. How To Be An Artist by Bill Drummond is published by Penkiln Burn.