General Musings: What does it all mean?

If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have to dance it.

– Isadora Duncan

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

Does art need explaining, asks the Guardian Arts blog? Well, I think it’s probably right on both counts. When it comes to pragmatics – writing funding applications, persuading venues to show the work, attracting an audience – then I think it is useful to be able to provide some kind of “explanation” of the work as a coherent set of ideas. What is the artist doing, and how? Why would people want to see it? Venue managers want to know they’re not going to be housing the work in an empty building, and funders want to know that the work meets their particular funding remit. The artist-as-business-manager needs to be able to state the case for the work, or the work probably isn’t going to happen.

However, is this kind of “explanation” really a satisfying insight into the work-as-art? This I doubt. Great art – whether literature, theatre, cinema or visual art – is perhaps characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation. This is why great art endures – it speaks to audiences in different historical and social contexts. A great work can be returned to by the same viewer (listener/reader) and yield new layers of interpretation each time – its message is not blandly monofaceted but complex, manifold. Great art invites multiple explanations. The artist-as-critic may have an explanation of their own work, but if this is the only interpretation available then we are probably looking at a rather dull, simple, redundant piece of work.

This is not to resist criticism. It is always illuminating and interesting to find out details of how a work was produced, its background and context; indeed, when I enjoy a work, I very often want to find out more about how it was made and what else was happening at the time. What the original blog post is advocating (and I largely agree with) is a resistance to providing easy explanations for gallery programmes and press releases, that misleadingly suggest to an audience that this is all that can be said about a work.

When I view a dance work, I’m aware that my view is informed by my own training and experience of making work as well as of seeing other professional works, and that I probably see the work very differently to somebody with a different background. That the work speaks to both myself and a non-dancer in different ways is a strength of the work. I would hate to think anyone in the audience felt limited in their interpretation by a pat statement in the programme.

It is possible that audiences of the same work see images of birth, death, love, betrayal, cycling, picking one’s nose or shopping. They might even see nothing beyond the materials of the work – the paint and canvas, the moving bodies, the words and music – and be satisfied. That a work can sustain different understandings is to me a strength and not a weakness. For art to be explained does not stifle the production of art – artists need to give a practical explanation in order to obtain the practical means to create and show work. But to close down meanings to one given explanation limits the audience’s own engagement and closes down the life of the work in the public imagination, and this may indeed be the enemy of art in terms of its celebration and duration.

General Musings: The play’s the thing

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.
– Carl Jung

As I often explain to my young (and not-so-young) charges and to others I encounter in my employment, a large part of what I do each day is not so much connected to the teaching of material (ie sequences of movement to be replicated by a class of students). Rather, my focus is often guiding students in their own compositions, helping them create material effectively and passing on the tools of choreography as well as the technique of dance. But what exactly does this mean in practice?

There are (broadly speaking) two ways in which one can lead a creative workshop. One approach would focus on the skills of composition – the shaping and refining of material into a structure. In songwriting terms, this would probably involve a verse/chorus type structure. If it were a choreography workshop, we would look at ways of shaping material using compositional devices (unison, canon, contrast) and motif structure (ABA, ABC and the like). There is of course value in teaching compositional structure as a set of skills – the structure of a piece governs the relationship of the audience to the material, and good composition presents material to its best advantage. Most students need to learn structural tools in order to create effectively.

But structure is not the only thing that might be taught in a creative workshop. Students also require guidance on how to create material in the first instance. Unless we subscribe wholly to the Romantic principle (with which I have never had much truck) of inspiration as some kind of semi-divine, unconscious experience that rises up before the artist and drops a poem/painting/global Number 1 hit into his or her brain fully-formed, then it is always artistic good practice to find new ways of creating material from an idea or mood.

The bolt from the blue is nice when it happens, but I think it’s also important to recognise that inspiration (rather like intuition, as argued by Malcom Gladwell) is as much a product of experience and learning to recognise an idea that works as it is unconscious “inspiration” in the Romantic sense – maybe even more so. We can certainly learn to recognise the good idea when it comes, by playing with as many ideas as possible and seeing what happens. New ideas for the creative processes can be introduced in a workshop, just as structural and compositional ideas can be. Sometimes the most satisfying learning experiences can come from somebody outside of ourselves suggesting a new starting point and offering feedback, leaving the rest of the exploration to us.

What might this play look like? To begin a new creative strategy, an artist might set themselves a particular challenge that forces them to think in a new way – like translating a phrase of movement 90 degrees around the body to create a new movement vocabulary; or creating a phrase on the floor, then translating it to a standing phrase; or deliberately choosing different body parts to begin with. A student with lots of ballet training, who often uses upright movements and classical balances, could be challenged to create a phrase entirely on the floor. A student with a jazz or street-jazz background who uses lots of isolations could begin with a pathway rather than a series of actions, and find new ways to fill the space. We might simply start from a different place – beginning with the end of a motif, or working up from the rhythm rather than down from the melody.

There comes a point (or points) during a career where it’s important to throw out everything you thought you knew and have a stab at something that’s completely new and rather uncomfortable. I think it’s important to embrace the idea that the resulting work might not immediately be your best, but you can learn new things in the process that carry your creative work forward. Artists of all forms with successful careers often show distinct periods following a particular development or paradigm shift – whether the artist is Picasso moving from Impressionism to Cubism, or U2 changing tack from The Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby. Artists who don’t experiment and embrace new processes tend to stagnate and produce work that, however well-crafted, feels very samey.

Deliberately deconstructing one’s usual working practice in order to find new ways of making can be extremely challenging, especially if one has found a comfortable and familiar process that seems to work. But the results can be extremely satisfying.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

– Scott Adams , ‘The Dilbert Principle’