My horrible lurgy has now reached the point where if I start to look down I start coughing, which clearly precludes reading or stitching, so I had an evening in front of the television last night. Although I ended up watching a crime drama, I also saw two great programmes from the point of view of learning about creativity.
The first was Gareth Malone’s latest series about making a choir, this time a military wives and girlfriends choir made up of the women whose partners are out on active service in Afghanistan. Part of me wonders why I recorded this. I should have known I would have been in tears almost before the opening credits had ended, and I was. I am horribly sentimental, but all that saying goodbye and never knowing if it would be for the last time, and little boys being told they had to be the man of the family and look after mum while dad was away was heartbreaking. And could have kept a crack team of gender researchers in material for a year. But the really affecting parts for me were when women who literally had no voice, literally could not force a note out started to find their voices and their confidence, and what we might describe as a sense of agency. And I was fascinated by the kind, gentle, patient Malone as a different kind of role model of masculinity in this hyper-masculine, hyper-aggressive death-dealing environment quietly coaxing some part of these women back to life. I was rather glad that some tiny children were there at the rehearsals to see that there is another way to be a man.
It helps, of course, that Malone is a fairly slight and boyish-looking man, but the scenes in which he went drinking with the women and did vigorous training with the men showed that he was no pushover, and I sensed a disappointment that he kept up on both occasions and the director couldn’t show him crumpled in a whimpering heap. Anyway, what was interesting from the point of view of creativity was the way that the women responded to the collective element. They were really hesitant and first, but something remarkable happened when they got in front of audiences. There is something inexplicable about that moment of meeting when the energy of performance is amplified by the performer connecting with the audience. And you could see it in these women. The more the audiences loved them the more they responded and the better they got. It was quite threatening: the gentle Malone fronting his forty totally lacking in confidence women in front of 300+ soldiers, mainly men, in uniform. I felt the vulnerability over time and space, but the connection was there and they took off. Once again, this was a demonstration for me of David Gauntlett’s ideas about making as connecting, and as a connection which increases the positive energy in a space.
Which bring me to my second point: the great art as therapy debate. I have always resisted the idea that I make my work as therapy, but even as I am saying it, I know that I am being disingenuous. Making art, creating, is a release. You feel better when you have done it. It isn’t necessarily working through some long-held in the body trauma from early childhood, but it makes you feel better. These women have no voice, no self-confidence, no right to be happy while their husbands are facing death, and nothing to do all day except look after their kids and possibly drink, but when they make art together by singing together they feel great. Joyce Fletcher, a gender theorist, talks about growth in connection, about learning communally, and says that it leads to zest and that experiencing zest leads to a desire for more zest. This is precisely what was going on in this choir. And, for once, Malone didn’t have to worry about their not turning up. The women came and continued to come. There might be a gender element in this, but I suspect the energy rush and the adrenaline they got from singing would keep them coming back. These women at some level were healed through performance, and that is therapeutic art at its best. And on BBC TV. Still on the iPlayer and worth catching up with.
The second thing I watched was rather more high art (Malone had them singing Guns ‘n’ Roses and Bob Dylan), which was the live coverage of the huge blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum, Leonardo Live.
This exhibition has almost all of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings brought together in one place with the exception of the Mona Lisa, but with the inclusion of the two versions of the Madonna of the Rocks. I sat through a lot of it. I am not that keen on Leonardo da Vinci, all those androgynous figures smirking to themselves out of the gloom unnerve me a bit. I can admire the wonderful draughtsmanship and the skill of all those subtle layers of paint giving an airbrushed feel to the skin, but I don’t love it. It is unlikely to happen that I ever get invited to the fantasy reward for being a sterling woman giftshop, but if I were, I would always taken the Rembrandt over the Leonardo. And just in case the invitation does come, please have the Jewish Bride/The Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca packed up and ready for me.
So, I sat through quite a lot of celebrities giving their opinions, which is fine, but frankly Fiona Shaw is a wonderful woman and a good thing to have in the world, but whether she is quite the person to comment on whether or not the lost Salvator Mundi is genuine or not is debatable.
I listened to the calm, suave, reasonable Tim Marlow give his calm, elegant disquisitions on why these were all masterpieces – which seemed to boil down to the individual man of genius version of creativity, touched by the divine, strange, slightly more that human, unique individual thesis, which I really dislike. I sat and pondered how different my life would have been had I had the looks and voice and genuine warmth of Mariella Frostrup, who had a gorgeous understated dress and was not wearing sky-high stripper shoes she couldn’t walk in. I listened to the great and the good telling me how marvellous it all was. Fine. Towards the end, though, Mariella Frostrup introduced Nitin Sawhney
He started to talk about Leonardo’s drawings and in particular the sfumato technique. The best-known example of this is probably this:
The cartoon of the Virgin Mary and St Anne. Sfumato which means that there are no harsh outlines, the brushstrokes are indiscernible – the effect is smokey. Sawhney said that this led to his feeling that Leonardo da Vinci became the medium to manifest - the idea that I have written about before that sometimes it feels as if you are not making work at all; it is just your hands which are being used by the work to make itself. I thought the phrase, ‘the means to manifest’ was lovely. I don’t know if it’s Sawhney’s own but it is absolutely right. He compared it to sitar players who sit surrounded by unheard ragas and provide the instruments for the music which already exists* to come into being. It’s a bit like turning on an old analogue radio: the sound waves are already in the room all around us, but we need the receiver to make them audible. Sawhney made the point that the murky sfumato technique shows this – the work emerges from the gloom. Leonardo is just the pair of hands that turn up to enable the emergence. I loved the idea of the medium modelling the process. I am really interested in this. My own work models and mirrors what I want to say about creating knowledge and doing scholarship. Which is why I am an academic quilter.
So in one night a glorious illustration of the therapeutic benefits of creativity and the notion of making as connecting, and a gorgeous illustration of the stereotypically definition of the great artist as the lone man of genius, and a counterstory about the artist as the medium to manifest. Quite a night.
* Academics reading this will notice that I resisted the temptation to use the jargonistic ‘always already exists’ which no respectable social scientist would ever pass over.