Andy Coote reviews 'Art, not Chance'
those who think that art is bunk and creation easy, this book will dispel
a few myths.
Reality has become
the buzzword for the development of entertainment programmes
for TV like Big Brother, Survivor and The
Heat is on. They claim to give us insights into the human condition
but often the whole turns out to be less than the sum of the parts. Its
the shallowness rather than the depths that we see.
The reality of creativity is that making something exist that wasnt
there before is a tough and frequently lonely process. Often only the
creator knows or cares about the end result and the mood swings when the
going is good or when it gets tough are particularly pronounced. There
is a difference between loneliness and solitude that may be defined purely
in terms of progress or block. Many artists and writers keep a journal.
Usually it is an intensely personal thing where the inhibitions of published
writing can be abandoned. It is a private place for the outpouring of
ones hopes and fears, successes and failures, highs and lows, written
for therapy or for self-knowledge or simply to put the days and weeks
into context. Editing the journal, the act of choosing what events to
put in or leave out and how to represent them, leads to an understanding
over time of priorities and the cycle of the writers moods from
optimistic one day to pessimistic another. It is also a place in which
experiments can take place and creation can begin.
As part of its Time to Experiment? project, the Calouste Gulbenkian
Foundation (CGF) asked nine artists, working across many fields of creative
endeavour, to keep a journal whilst they did so. Nothing special so far.
They also asked that the diarists be prepared to share their journals
with the public through a book
Art, not Chance
published by CGF at £8.50 and available on-line or through bookshops.
The honesty of the book is one of its greatest strengths. Writing down
some of the internal dialogues must have been hard enough, sharing them
with an audience is an act of bravery and bravery brings its rewards.
For those who think that art is bunk and creation easy, this book will
dispel a few myths. For prospective creators in whatever field, it shows
the extremes through which they must go if their creation is to be truly
worthwhile. The title of the book comes from Alexander Popes
Essay on Criticism (1711) and the couplet : True ease
in writing comes from art, not chance. As those move easiest who have
learned to dance
The diarists have been selected from a wide range of the arts and all
are active in the United Kingdom and beyond. From the world of music come
Joanna MacGregor, a world-renowned pianist and Errollyn Wallen an acclaimed
composer. Wordsmiths include novelist Laurence Norfolk, poet Jo Shapcott
and playwright Shelagh Stephenson. Visual and performance arts are represented
here by performance artist Bobby Baker, theatre Director Tim Supple and
sculptor Richard Wentworth. Finally from dance comes Choreographer Shobana
Each diary in its own way emphasises the importance of ideas and of vision
whilst showing that ideas and vision alone have no value without application
and sheer hard work. The longeurs and blocks of the creative process appear
regularly. Shelagh Stephenson, for example, Depressed and in limbo.
No idea how to start new play. The fact that its a year overdue
is an added worry. Later in her journal, Shelagh relates the strangeness,
as she sees it, of the creative process Have reached a strange place
in the creative process, which may be akin to mental illness. Someone
described to me once the manic phase of manic depression : thinking Silk
Cut posters were charged with resonance and meaning, and were speaking
specifically to you. Everything glitters with relevance, everything is
connected and is somehow part of a vast and exciting plan, which only
you understand. Thats sort of where I am.
Erollyn Wallen talks of the process of composition when the music begins
to flow on to the paper, At this stage I lose the power of intelligible
speech and must seem distracted, away with the fairies.
Jeyasinghs problems are not just her own. Rehearsing and developing
her pieces with most, but seldom all, of her key dancers, she is
at the whim of their moods and physical fitness. The process
is that I have a starting point (which may turn out to be the finishing
point) but only [the dancers] bodies and what we can get out
of them will determine the end product.
Poet Jo Shapcottss diary is memorable for her account of a British
Council performance. Some of her fellow performers were clearly away
with the fairies too - permanently.
The climax (if that is the right word here) involves Jo, unsuspectingly
offering to help out one of the female performers. Too late she discovers
the downside of her helpfulness, Whole thing is being videoed so
somewhere in the world there is a film of me playing the rape alarm next
to a woman reading a long, long poem with a microphone inserted in her
Further acts do nothing to raise the tone. I like multimedia and
performance art. I like avant-garde poetry. Its only bad art I dont
like. In best News of the World tradition, Jo makes her excuses
Joanna McGregor recounts the experience of working with South African
musician Moses Molelakwa and the delight of finding a common enjoyment
in the music, So we sit side by side, at our respective keyboards,
feeling low and just improvise for quite a while, which eventually cheers
us up its OK, we really do speak some kind of piano language.
He introduces her to kwaito music and she introduces him to the delights
of a John Cage prepared piano, At the end of the concert
Moses peers inside the piano at all the nuts, bolts, pieces of rubber,
sits down and immediately invents a groove that entertains the members
of the audience whove also come to take a look.
Lawrence Norfolk grapples with completion of his third novel
In the Shape of a Boar, adding over 60 changes at page proof
stage as time runs out and publication looms large and he keeps seeing
better ways to tell his story. He reflects on the one-sided process of
writing prose, You give and give; a book gives nothing in return.
The only consolation is that this is a problem for the writer not
Bobby Baker juggles with multiple projects and ends up in that mainstay
of creativity, the avoidance activity, Consumed by all these titles,
problems, questions. The problem is that there are too many problems.
Resort to washing duvets to keep mind at bay.
In addition to managing his actors, Tim Supple has to cross cultural and
linguistic boundaries to direct Much Ado about Nothing in
Berlin, in German. Unsurprisingly, it is not all plain sailing, Now
I feel somewhat exhausted and disheartened. The play is hard. Too few
of the actors seem truly to understand how to play it. I feel under-prepared
or uninspired. The language exhausts me and seems to double the time it
takes to work. As a freelance, tired and pessimistic, he has to
leave for other commitments without even seeing the premiere.
Richard Wentworth recounts a day in his life whilst curating an exhibition
in Camden called Thinking Aloud and trying to break the rules.
Thinking aloud needs to look untidy but not in a studied way. Its
essential that it defeats the worst clichés of the exhibition display,
the equally spaced row, the orthogonal template. Alongside
the lows, the insecurities, the over-commitment and the sheer exhaustion
that all of the diarists experience, there are the high points. Joanna
MacGregor comes towards the end of a difficult and draining tour with
Moses Molelakwa in Johannesburg, At first the crowd is cooler than
last night come on, I can feel them saying, impress us. But theyre
great by the end, they leap to their feet on the last note. Moses and
I read each other more fluidly and I notice his playing is getting more
dissonant and angular, without losing the sweetness of his melodies.
Errollyn Wallen captures the exhilaration when things finally come together,
I am thrilled to be alive and to be able to summon up sounds from
all sorts of exotic instruments.
These highly personal journals made me laugh and cry though not
usually at the same time - and left me with the realisation that the creative
process is hard work, often plagued by diversions and disasters, informed
by good ideas, a clear vision and the ability to leave failure behind
on the road to success. Writers and artists are human, too and their Reality
Writing lays bare their humanity, showing their weaknesses and their
strengths. If I could, I would like to meet up with all of them and thank
them personally for what they shared with me in a highly intimate fashion.
I feel as though I know them and, yet, I know that I do not.
The very best way to show my appreciation of their efforts is to widen
their audience. If only one of you buys this book, I will have been successful.
If all of you do, that would be truly amazing. Please do.
© Andy Coote October 2001 (Currently embarking on a years study of
'writing' at Falmouth College)
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