A contemporary artist's sketchbook is frequently an intimate laboratory through which to repeatedly become and perform an artistic self and through which to learn to become that self; that is, to develop a practice. Shifts in how sketchbooks are used could be tracked according to the prevailing identity of the artist as she or he lives their life, as well as the identity of the art product. As the sketchbook hits a kind of crisis related to both its ubiquity and its archaic form, it is transformed by commerce, conceptually and as a medium, to turn the Joseph Beuys dictum 'everyone is an artist' into 'everyone can be commodified to simulate becoming an artist'.
I am writing from my own experience of keeping a sketchbook, as well as looking at other contemporary artists' and students' sketchbooks. I am using the word 'sketchbook' to suggest a wide variety of notebooks and sketchbooks that include many types of text and image, and contribute to different stages in the production of art. In art education in the UK, producing a sketchbook is a curriculum requirement in the study of art in both school and higher education and, in different ways, becomes part of the assessable work a student produces. The current crisis in the UK education system has been well documented, as the citizen/student is repositioned as the consumer/student. As educational institutions enter the market, the purpose of education is contested, and with this contest come challenges to long-standing, nation-building concepts of the individual, self-realisation, social mobility, dissent and knowledge itself. Public educational assessment is an intrinsic part of the shift to the market, promoted by the government as ensuring public value for money and offering consumer choice, while teachers and lecturers experience it as ever-increasing administration and drudgery.
Both to educators and to students a sketchbook is frequently seen as a site of creative learning, although, of course, 'creativity' is a concept with political form. As Pen Dalton noted in her 2001 book The Gendering of Art Education, the educational priorities of certain art courses in UK higher education match the business imperatives promoted by the Confederation of British Industry, which she cites as 'initiative, self-motivation, creativity, communication and teamwork', and suggests that 'the paradigm of postmodern economic man is the playful, creative, risk-taking, entrepreneurial artist'. Reinforcing this, the collective Radical Philosophy noted in its journal's editorial that the demand now is for workers 'with uniquely individual abilities'. Creating a picture of the endless networking and socio-cultural performances of the self that a 'flexible' worker must enact, the editorial states that the 'self is no longer a place of retreat but a productive force', and a flexible worker must 'maintain a good mood in order to appear creative and original - survival depends on it'.
To understand the ways in which sketchbooks operate as performative manifestations towards becoming an artistic self, one can take as an example the early notebooks of the artist, choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. She kept these notebooks when she was making the transition from school to university. The first, from when she was a teenager at college in 1951, opens with a description of an argument with a teacher about what and how the students should be taught. She goes on to vividly describe what it feels like - physically and emotionally - to be her. She determinedly digs below the surface of her feelings in writing about them. More than 50 years later, in a 2009 interview with Robert Storr, Rainer commented about the dance, Trio A, that she choreographed in 1966 and in which she was filmed performing in 1978: 'One of the main characteristics of this dance is that the gaze of the performer never looks directly out at the audience ... I refused to look at the audience, so the gaze becomes inward. …