Do You Know Where You Are Going To?

Many of you will remember a lovely song circa the seventies. The version I had was the original and was sung by Johnny Mathis.  It was in fact the theme song from the film ‘Mahogany.’  I don’t remember having ever seen Mahogany, but the song and lyrics just keep lingering on.


There were a lot of inspirational and philosophical songs at that time but this particular one stayed with me, and the first verse went…


Do you know where you are going to?

Do you like the things that life is showing you?

Where are you going to?

Do you know?

Do you get what you are hoping for?

When you look behind you there’s no open door.

What are you hoping for, do you know?


The questions that ‘struck a chord’ with me are “Do you know where you are going to?” and the “What are you hoping for?”


I recently had an e-mail from a member of a certain arts collective who was concerned that their organisation was foundering and could possibly soon close, and it seems from what I have been hearing that her organisation is not alone, and that there are many of these organisations that are struggling right now and one must ask why?


The most common explanations heard are ‘It’s the economy, or it’s the crime rate’.  Well, the state of the economy is certainly one of the reasons why such a group could be in trouble and I know of many people who are too scared to leave their homes, but there is possibly more to it than this and it is strange that although so many groups and societies are finding things difficult, there are those that are prospering.  (We may say the same about Artists and Art Galleries)


A few years back there was a similar situation and I was approached by a few groups to offer advice, and so I started asking questions much like those asked in the song at the beginning of this article. From the research I did I deduced that most groups had no clue as to where they were going or in fact what their function was other than to ‘have some fun.’  Fun is fine of course, but success needs something a little more than just that.


I decided to contact all the visual arts organisations I could and asked them to send me copies of their constitutions and also their mission-statements or manifestos. To my surprise just about all responded. That was really positive, but in many cases even leaders of the collectives admitted that that had not read their constitution and did not know if they ever had such things as Mission-statements or Manifestos. Where they did in fact have these things they tended to be more like wish-lists rather than road-maps. To me this is where their problems started. The Constitution contains the house-rules, the laws of the organisation as well as the reason for their existence, and the mission-statement is the blueprint or map of what they want to achieve and how they are going to reach their objectives. If you do not have or do not adhere to such a device, then how the hang are you ever going to reach your destination, whatever that may be? If you have neither a destination nor a map you have to be a non- starter. Having ‘fun’ can only take you round in circles and will inevitably fizzle out. Aiming for a well thought out plan and objective is far more fun than just groping around in the dark.


I am old enough to have known some of the people who started the organisations of KZN (most are at least 30 or more years old–a few much older) and they all, without exception, were on a mission. That is they wanted to uplift, raise the artistic bar, or provide a home for artists with a similar mission. I did not meet a single one who went to all the trouble of setting up a group, drawing up a constitution and the rest, merely to create an artistic book-club or social group.  Now after all these years it seems many of these organisations have lost the plot totally.


Obviously things change and constitutions and manifestos change and have to be brought up to date, but this then must be done with thought and with new road maps and objectives clearly expressed.


Tired and directionless collectives can be renewed and resuscitated as was the case with one of the oldest Societies in the Eastern Cape. They were literally on their knees a few years ago and the final decision was to try and rescue it, or close it down. One woman’s vision breathed new life into it. She gave it a new reason to exist and new direction. This is not easy, but if you can find a visionary and elect (or co-opt) a committee that has the drive to achieve and believe in the objectives they set, miracles can and will still happen.


The words of the song also apply to individual artists.  I hear from artists almost every week who tell me that they are in a rut or have creative block. I am not saying this affliction does not exist, and have to admit that I have fallen prey to it so many times in my own life, but when I analyse the reasons for this occurrence it is almost without fail due to not having that blue-print or clearly defined objectives, or not knowing what I want to achieve in my career or even in my life.


When you have not sat down with pen and paper and planned your trip you will almost without exception, start going round in the circles mentioned earlier. We all know what the outcome of that is. This is the same with almost anything we do in life. If you do not plan a way forward, you go nowhere, and for humans that is fatal. We read of ‘living for the day’ etc., but that is not how we were created. The nature of humankind is we are goal-driven creatures, and the goals we set do not have to be huge earth-shattering things, but we do need to set goals for each day, each week, and each year and beyond! If we had never set goals and objectives we’d still be chattering up in the trees and foraging for grubs in the dirt.


The very paint we use was goal-driven, and there was a desire and reason to find and produce every pigment. Again if it was not so we would still be drawing with burnt sticks and bits of chalk. We need visionaries in all aspects of our lives, and if they make sense to listen to them.


There is also in most of us a desire to be remembered and show some reason for our existence, and in fact most religions are based on that belief, or a life hereafter would mean little.


Why is it then that artists and groups so often do the bare minimum when it comes to creating something of real value? Why do so many of us use the cheapest and most suspect canvases, papers and paints?  Why is so little effort spent by so many of us on educating and training ourselves – even though we have easier access to education and information than ever before. As with the artists, so too with the collectives. They have great expectations but make the bare minimum of effort. It is almost without fail that a very few end up doing a great deal and the rest go along for the ride, almost physically dragging the whole effort back. Why is it that to so many tea-time is considered the priority and has more value, interest, and time committed to it than planning, education and acquiring knowledge? Dear, dear me!


Do you know where you are going?

Do you know the things that life is showing you?

Where are you going to…

Do you know?

Do you get what you are hoping for…

When you look behind you there’s no open door,

What are you hoping for, do you know?


Well do YOU know, and more importantly, do you really care?


This is worth thinking about!


Till next time…


Written: November / December 2013


  • Steve Bartlett

    Hi John, I was part of your “Class of 84-86” at Art Leather in West Street, Durban. It was really interesting reading through your thoughts on this subject. And you are so right in this respect. It’s taken me most of my 57 years on this planet to come to the same conclusion as you have so eloquently drawn – namely that “planning your work and then working your plan” is critical to success in this life – irrespective of the specific walk that may have been chosen. Thank you very much for “putting pen to paper” on the subject of identifying one’s objective – before pursuing what ultimately could become a rather aimless target. Excellent food for thought. Kind regards and ongoing respect – Steve Bartlett (still on assignment in Kuwait)

    • John Smith

      It is such a nice surprise hearing from you after all these years Steve (20!) Also pleased my article touched a nerve.
      Thanks so much for letting me know.
      Kuwait hey? That sounds exotic!
      Are you still painting?
      Best wishes
      Have you visited my Website
      as well as Facebook ‘John Smiths Artworld’

      • John Smith

        I’ve seen you since this note Steve!

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