The Art of Making Art - Chasing the Phenomenon
Last week I watched the West End transfer of a new play concerning the life of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Having little-to-no knowledge of his life or troubles, I was interested to learn about an area of art I know nothing about, and a man who has since become one of the most internationally recognisable icons of his industry. Rather than present the drama as a biopic, writer James Phillips instead presents one evening in the artist's life, where the boundaries between fantasy and reality are intentionally blurred. Whilst this worked on a performance level, and allowed some very effective moments of staging, I came away frustrated that I hadn't really had a glimpse into his life, or learnt much more about him that a quick Google on the tube home couldn't solve. Despite being impeccably acted by Stephen Wight, unfortunately I found the writing to be extremely weak, and for me it was certainly a case of style over substance.
Whilst watching however I couldn't help but draw parallels to one of my favourite musicals of all time – Sondheim and Lapine's 1984 masterpiece Sunday in the Park With George. Like McQueen, Sondheim and Lapine present a frustrated artist at the forefront of the drama, and instead of giving you a Lifetime Movie account of their journey, we are presented with a moment inside the mind of a great creative. In the case of Sunday..., the protagonist is the French post-impressionist Georges Seurat, whose great paining "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" was the inspiration behind the musical as a whole, and inspired the style of the score as well as the book.
In both pieces the drama stems from their interactions with the women in their life – for McQueen it was the mythical presence of American Dahlia, and for Seurat it was his long-time mistress Dot. Both dramas explore the artist in relation to their opposite figure, as well as the world around them and their overall cultural impact. Whereas in the later example, the relationship between George and Dot is better defined, both in the time frame of act one and the later frame of act two, where George and Dot's great-grandson George encounters a vision of Dot and completes their unfinished act one duet, "Move On".
To quote Sondheim himself, I was struck by how both pieces concentrate on the “art of making art” above anything else. In both cases, the frustrated artists were struggling to find or finish a new idea, and the weight of expectation from previous work or the industry in which they operate piles additional pressure on an already tense environment. The audience then become implicit in this discovery and the narrative is drawn from the process and the creation rather than the product, which provides a strangely compelling and moving overall narrative.
This idea is certainly not rare or unique. Audiences across various mediums, be it books, films or theatre enjoy seeing the creation of art, and even more so the life of the creator – which in many cases surpasses their creations. Even someone with a passing knowledge of McQueen or Seurat could find pleasure in either production, and there is no reliance on having assumed knowledge of their work – which is in part reason for their overall success.
Gabriel Ebert, Joseph Keckler
Nikki M. James and Eisa Davis in 'Preludes'
Visiting New York recently I was similarly stuck by how many musicals and plays currently running were dealing with this idea with strikingly different results. At the Lincoln Center, I saw a new musical by Dave Malloy called Preludes. Like McQueen and Sunday..., the piece focused on a personally repressed artist struggling to find their latest big idea, and battling the inner daemons to create something that lived up to industry expectation. In this case, the drama focused on Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who experienced severe writers block following the disastrous performance of his First Symphony in D Minor. Only through counselling was he able to overcome this mental block, and go on to write further pieces of music, although in his mind they were never as successful as what had gone before.
At the City Center I saw William Finn's A New Brain, an autobiographical account of how the composer dealt directly with his own harrowing experience with illness, and how this affected his ability to compose, as well as the healing power of art.
It's a term that Oprah calls 'Chasing the Phenomenon' – and it's something I'm extremely interested in, and relates to all sorts of artists, as well as every day people. In conversation with writer JK Rowling about where she could possibly go next after the 'Harry Potter' franchise, the discussion led to Michael Jackson's obsession with bettering himself following 'Thriller', his sixth studio album and the biggest selling album of all time. Oprah argued this constant search to out do what you've already achieved is ultimately unhealthy for a creative, and at some point you may need to accept that your best work may be behind you.
As humans we're preconditioned to think of life as a constant ladder, one on which we continue to climb and are rewarded for hard work, where achievements allow us to move up and continue to succeed. In reality, we all know that life is full of peaks and troughs, and nowhere is this more true than with art and artists. No matter what field you work in, the pressure to get on the ladder is one that drives you forward throughout most of your life, then when you're on it you are not necessarily prepared for the bumpy journey. Some artists, singers, writers etc. may be a one hit wonder – be it a book, a painting or a song - and find that that was their time, and searching for something greater is futile.
Another current Broadway show that deals with this idea is Finding Neverland, which sees the subject J.M Barrie struggle to find his greatest and newest idea. The show begins at the opening night of one of his lesser plays, and follows Barrie as a chance encounter leads to him making his most popular works of art, the character and play 'Peter Pan'. Like McQueen, Preludes and Sunday..., we see the artist at his lowest point, doubting his own ideas and worrying that he has lost his magic touch, but we remain apart of the creative process through to its completion.
The real art then comes from the story of its creation, and the fascination we as audiences get from watching the artist journey through a particularly dark moment, to in most cases end up with a masterpiece. Quite why we as audiences enjoy this glimpse of voyeurism into the mind of some of the greatest creative minds is not necessarily clear – but personally I find great comfort in seeing the common struggle that goes into such work, and it somehow feels more deserving and worthy of its status as a result.