Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Time it Takes

One thing that gets increasingly lost in the talk about "creative industries" and the need for individual artists, writers etc. to take other things (such as marketing, promotion) into their own hands is the time it all takes. It's a subject that Malcolm Gladwell talked about in his latest book, "Outliers," talking of the "10,000 hour rule" - a common figure for success in different walks of life from sport to musicianship. I was reminded of this last night watching a repeat of Blues Britannia - where the young guitarists of the British blues boom felt they could only be as good as their heroes if they practiced for 15 or 20 years or more.

That it takes time to be good at something is certainly true; but as important is having the uninterrupted time to work on a particular thing. Whether or not the end result is worth the effort is a matter of conjecture. I saw a documentary about the artist Micheal Landy a few years ago - particularly about his piece "Break Down" where he systematically destroyed all of his possessions. I'm not a fan of Landy's work, though admire his persistence. For me, the problem with it - at least what came across in the documentary - is that he gets a single idea, such as this one, then has to take it through to its conclusion. Whether you like the work or not, probably depends on whether you think the single idea is worth pursuing. I sometimes think that the single idea is better as a thought, not to be taken to its conclusion. Art, of course, since it can offer a certain indulgence, is often the taking through an idea to conclusion. I'm quite fond of some of the YBAs work, but it is this single idea compulsiveness that seems their achilles heel. A work like Fiona Banner's "Hunt for Red October" where she writes, from memory, the whole film on a wall is another example of a bad idea, involving much tedium for the artist in its execution, I guess, taken to conclusion. There's a hairshirt element about this kind of work - a self imposed suffering for your art.

In all of literature perhaps the most obvious example would be James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake." A novel that dominated the latter part of his life, as his eyes were failing, it is not so much a failed work as a work that failed to find an audience. Perhaps its an idea - a novel where most of the tropes of the traditional are removed - which someone had to write. In this sense, I'd distinguish it from the two YBA examples above, in that here was a "good idea" that, against all common sense, Joyce took to its conclusion. What should we make then of the new edition of it? The book, which took Joyce 17 years to write, took 30 years for Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon to revise according to recent press about it's re-publication. We marvel at the hand drawn books of monk-scholars and can only be glad for their perseverance and dedication - so perhaps we should be as equally grateful to Rose and O'Hanlon. After all there are enough academics in the world beavering away for all of their careers on good and bad ideas, and there is only one "Finnegan's Wake."

In the contemporary world, we don't have monk-scholars, rather we have the millions of man hours that go into video games and now films such as "Avatar." I was watching the much talked about video for Lady Gaga's new single "Telephone" and what strikes you is the amount of work that has gone into what is essentially a vacuous product. "Telephone" is, by some way, the least memorable of the singles that Lady Gaga has released since storming the charts last year and so perhaps the video needed to be the most excessive thing about it. A cynic could say that most of the man hours in this video went into watching "Thelma and Louise" and "Pulp Fiction" a dozen times or so, so signalled are its pop culture references, but maybe Lady Gaga was the sort of teen who put her favourite films on time and again anyway. (One doubts it somehow; she was more likely spending her 10,000 hours professionalising her project.)

Given "the time it takes" for any art - but particularly any good art - it strikes me that the best thing an artist can do is not to become a blogger, or design their own website, or create some other outlets that will help shine a light on their art, but rather to concentrate on the core thing. If there is a role for publishers and film companies and record companies in our user-generated-content world then it must be this: to create the space where the art happens. From anecdotal evidence with people I know, this seems to be happening less and less; rather it is the artist-as-brand that is now as important as anything else - and whether you are Chris Ofili or Ian McEwan or whoever, providing some kind of "access" is now so vital. I know on a smaller, local level, one of the real frustrations is that even where the idea is good, there are often so many barriers to making it happen - usually institutional - that mean it takes a particular type of personality to overcome them. Even though our artists, musicians and writers proliferate these days, we should still have enough common sense to realise that the artist or the creator is the most expensive piece of machinery in the room - the equivalent of the state-of-the-art machine that the hospital or factory has been waiting for; the equivalent of the multi-million pound striker or world beating sprinter; the equivalent of the top scientist or hospital consultant. Around each of these, you want the "prime" thing or person to be working at full capacity for as long as possible - anything and everything that can help that; should be put in place to enable it. I used to like the Guardian on a Saturday with it's "Writer's rooms" - as even if we're not able to have the world devote itself to our every need, we can still try and put as many things in place as we can.

And whether or not it requires Gladwell's 10,000 hours - I think I'd rather be creating something of my own, to the best of my ability, than contributing in some way to something as facile as the new Lady Gaga video, however much fun it might be to watch on YouTube. Recuperating, these last two weeks, what I've realised is that even having time hasn't meant much, when I've not found it too easy to read or write for prolonged periods, or, more than that, put in the intellectual time that creativity needs. All the projects I was working on before my operation have been put on hold, and it will be a while - weeks certainly, but possibly longer - before I can get back to the same place as I was with them.


Anonymous said...

Gladwell's latest book is What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (October 2009), not Outliers (2008).

Adrian Slatcher said...

He should sack his PR, that one totally past me by. Where was the Broadsheet serialisation? The massive hype?