Today I was at a major exhibition, ‘Ages of Wonder – Scottish Art from 1540 to now‘ at the Royal Scottish Academy of Art in Edinburgh (it’s free, and very enjoyable).
As I went round, reading the plaques which explained the artworks, I was struck by how often they referred to ‘the artist’s practice’ and what fed into it … what working methods, new technology, which journeys, what personal travails had influenced particular works.
Taking this theme further, they had re-created an artist’s working studio, brought print-making equipment into the gallery, and shown us a life drawing class with unfinished pictures waiting on easels to be continued (I missed the hours when the artists were actually there). There was a historic video of Joseph Beuys taking a road trip across Scotland, the wobbly view from the car window evidently being considered worthy of record because of what it might reveal about the sights and sounds which impacted on his artistic imagination.
I tried to think whether there was anything quite comparable in my field, but couldn’t. This must be partly because many classical musicians don’t originate the music we play, so our relationship to ‘the work’ is less direct. Nevertheless we do tangle with the pieces we play for long periods before we perform them in public. We are, after all, bringing the music to life. But has anyone shown an interest in what I might have been reading or thinking about when learning this or that piece? Have they wanted to video my practice sessions so that they could produce a time-lapse collage of ‘developing ideas’? Wanted to re-create my practice room with exactly the right volumes of music piled up on the piano, to show what else I was working on at the time, and what brand of coffee was in that mug on the mantelpiece? Alas, no.
It often seems quite random how artforms have such different preoccupations. In the visual arts the artist’s mental processes are of deep significance. In the world of classical music, by contrast, we are taught to shut the door firmly on the studio and ensure that all our preparatory work is swept up and disposed of. Why so different, I wonder?