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First Chapters
September Issue

Andy Coote reviews 'Art, not Chance'
For 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. It’s the shallowness rather than the depths that we see. 

The reality of creativity is that making something exist that wasn’t 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 one’s 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 writer’s 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 Pope’s ‘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 Jeyasingh. 

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 it’s 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. That’s 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’.” 

Shobana Jeyasingh’s 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 Shapcotts’s 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 privates.”

Further acts do nothing to raise the tone. “I like multimedia and performance art. I like avant-garde poetry. It’s only bad art I don’t like.” In best News of the World tradition, Jo makes her excuses and leaves. 

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 who’ve 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 the book.”

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. It’s 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 they’re 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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