Monday, January 03, 2005

At Work

There is a scene in the film The Hours when Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman) sits in her chair, cigarette mindlessly in hand, lost lost lost in deep thought. We surmise that she is working things out, unknotting the plot, structure, or events of her novel Mrs. Dalloway. Her immobility, physically speaking, suggests an emotional catatonic state. Only the curling and drifting smoke hints at creative activity, activity that occurs in "a room of her own," her mind. Friends and family do not understand her. Is this a great writer? At work? Doing nothing?

I identify with the Woolf of this scene because I, too, spend a great deal of time in my head, planning, dreaming, creating, and visualizing a seemingly endless list of concepts and ideas, props and sounds, gestures and programs. This setting--the mind--is not where the public wants to see their artists, musicians, writers, or dancers. We laud the visible and tangible, the end products of mental activity, from precisely diced vegetables and flawlessly executed passages of Mozart to irregular brushstrokes on a canvas and the colors of chemical mixtures changing from one test tube to another. The outsider can not witness certain activities, the lists and diagrams scrawled on the back of an ATM receipt or the mental blueprint that positions one's props and instruments on the stage. Like the scene in the film, the moment when we glimpse beyond the end product, to the artist "at work," may feel confrontational or intrusive. Not able to comprehend, we find it difficult to support or nurture this aspect of the creative endeavor. Is it surprising that we latch on to the end product, often posthumously, and attempt to appreciate the creator through their work? How would interpretations be affected if we studied more closely the actual act of working?

The dichotomy between "workplace" and "work" fascinates me. The artist "works" in multiple worlds: a workplace may be the recording studio or practice room, the study or breakfast-nook, the lab or stage. But the workplace is also a mental engagement of ideas, observations, decisions and prayer. One workplace is public, a shell, and one is private, the fragile liquid egg. The artist inhabits the many nooks and crannies of this world, some in high, and some in low, relief, a perspective poetically rendered by Mary Oliver:
And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.
Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.
--from "The Book of Time"
The juxtapositions challenge, as when we glimpse the artist in both worlds at once: Virgina Woolf quietly in her chair, pen at rest, Glenn Gould murmuring and gesturing over the keys of the piano, never touching them, the scientist hunched over his notepad, glassware nowhere in sight. The fractured view is offputting, a little frightening, incomprehensible.

Woolf, of course, penned the poignant A Room of One's Own, which, unfortunately, has become its own cliche. It is too easy to pigeonhole each creative mind to their "room": the chef to her kitchen, the musician to the practice studio, the filmmaker in the dailies reel room, the dancer at the barre. Isn't it more likely that for the artists themselves, the most important room is the room in their mind, and that the end product, however viscerally we see, hear or experience it, is only the door barely cracked open? The light slithering out from beneath the closed door? Consider Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as a slice of light emmanating from Picasso's "workroom" and learn to experience art in a more humbling way. These multiple perspectives--the audience viewing the end product vs. viewing the artist at work, and the artist working in the mind vs. working, physically, with the body--intertwine with an expressive complexity. I realize that in an end product or performance I see only a single thread or shard of a more sprawling creative work, but perhaps that is the trick of a masterpiece regardless of one's sensitivity to it or not. The silent artistic process--what goes on behind the closed doors, so to speak--creates a mysterious void that compels and draws us in, demanding a reaction or response. In many ways, what we never witness flirts the most with our powers of appreciation, our desire to enter the artist's room.


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