The Process: On Bodies of Work, Their Origins, & How We Experience Them

“[…]Today, by taking advantage of the Internet and social media, an artist can share whatever she wants, whenever she wants, at almost no cost.  She can decide exactly how much or how little of her work and herself she will share, and she can be as open about her process as she wants to—she can share her sketches and works-in-progress, post pictures of her studio, or blog about her influences, inspiration, and tools.  By sharing her day-to-day process—the thing she really cares about—she can form a unique bond with her audience.”

After catching the Christine & the Queens concert at Brooklyn Steel back in November 2018, a conversation sparked between my dear friend Kawa and I as we waited for our bus ride home.  The discussion centered around the idea of context in art: how important is it to know the story behind an artist and their work?  How does it affect their creative output, if at all?  And, more importantly, how does it affect our experience of it?  

We were, to my surprise, of two warring minds.  

For her part, Kawa was vocally adamant on not consuming an artist’s previous works and any accompanying visuals beforehand, so as to not muddle her experience with their music or—as in the case of the concert that night—live performance.  I, on the other hand, tended toward the opposite―I wanted to consume every possible thing available in order to gain what I considered the fullest experience of an artist’s conceptual world.   In fact, the thought of foregoing any aspect of the sort seemed to me downright unfathomable.  In many forms of arts criticism, prior research and survey of an artist’s work, however thorough, isn’t unheard of, of course.  For my part, as a sometime-critic who had spent a good part of her post-collegiate life writing up reviews of plays and musicals in the off- and off-off-Broadway space, I had always felt it necessary.  Artistic direction and intent was important to keep in mind when judging a piece of work and whether that intent was achieved in the final product.  

As many of the shows themselves were still technically works-in-progress, culling as much knowledge I could about a playwright or piece (in the case of revivals and adaptations), whether through director’s notes in the program or in my own research beforehand, helped to provide another layer of meaning to the work, as well as my final evaluation of it.As a fan who had yet to expand her live performance horizons to include her indie-pop bona fides (at least, not until recently), the internet served as an essential part of the experience.  In the case of Christine and the Queens, this was very much so, as much of my initial discovery of her work had been through YouTube videos—not only of her discography, but various concerts and interviews, as well.  From there, I delved even further—discovering impetus behind her act, as well as the stories behind the meanings of various songs.

These days, it’s so much easier than ever for the 21st-century fan (or critic, professional or otherwise) to have such unfettered access to an artist’s body of work.  From streaming content to guest performances, to even long- and short-form interviews, there’s no end to the myriad ways an artist can choose to showcase their unique artistic perspective.  Other independent artists of the early- to mid-aughts—Lily Allen, Kate Nash, and others of their ilk—would self-publish their work on MySpace in grassroots-style campaigns.  (In a similar move, Nash would later go on to abolish the idea of joining a label altogether, using Kickstarter so fans could help fund her 2018 album, Yesterday was Forever). Through the years, many other musicians have taken advantage of the video format and its popularity, releasing ambitious companion film projects in lieu of the traditional music video or album—Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture”, for example, among others.

“Process is messy.”

The most widely-known modern practitioner of the visual album is Beyoncé, who changed the game with her self-titled 2013 album, as well as 2016’s no-holds-barred masterpiece Lemonade.  These, along with her documentaries, provide fans with a whole breadth of work with which to get to know her as both an artist as well as a modern woman living in a post-#BlackLivesMatter world.  In her Netflix documentary, Homecoming—inspired by Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the marching bands and drumlines of her childhood—we watch as she chronicles the intense four-month rehearsal period before her history-making performance as the first African-American headliner at Coachella 2018.  Beyoncé’s film not only shows the requisite behind-the-scenes footage which has been a signature of her biographical film documentaries but also digs into the two messy sides of her life, on levels both artistic and personal.

Other digital archives of the creative process prove equally enlightening: popular podcasts such as Song Exploder and Switched on Pop offer listeners another peek behind some of pop music’s most enduring hits.  One gripping episode of Song Exploder has Solange reminiscing about the steel cranes near her rental apartment, which later inspired her song, “Cranes in the Sky”. Another episode has Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens talking about the bouts of depression that led to her walking the streets of Paris at night and later write her hit song, “Doesn’t Matter” .

Recently, I found myself engrossed in a more analog experience: betwixt the pages of Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work!; as well as that of Hamilton: A Revolution, companion book to the hit Broadway musical, co-written by Hamilton conceiver Lin-Manuel Miranda and former New Yorker drama critic Jeremy McCarter.  Hamilton: A Revolution covers everything in Miranda’s creative process throughout the show’s history, from its initial inception (his reading of the Ron Chernow biography during a vacation stay in Mexico); to the now-legendary performance of the title song’s first draft; to its first run at The Public Theater to its opening night on Broadway, at its current home at the Richard Rodgers Theater.

Miranda’s creative process is heavily documented not only in song lyrics he has annotated in great detail but also in a fascinatingly revealing series of photos depicting the composer’s messily scrawled notebooks, herein titled “The Pen and the Pad, I & II”.  Reading about the hip-hop provenance of certain lines in the play, and even seeing transcripts of instant messages sent between members of the creative team, proved to be more than enlightening—it was actually kind of…comforting, in factComforting to know that even professionals like Miranda still go through their creative growing pains. After all, as Austin Kleon quoted writer Clay Shirky: “The stupidest creative act is still a creative act.” Kleon goes on to write: “Amateurs might lack formal training, but they’re all lifelong learners, and they make a point of learning in the open, so that others can learn from their failures and successes.”  

It’s something to keep in mind as I continue my own creative endeavors as a writer. Like Héloïse, Beyoncé, Solange, and so many others before me—I’ve felt that sharing my process (as I have on my Patreon page) allows for an insight into my own artistic intent, whatever shape or form it takes.

This post is sponsored by Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community with thousands of classes for creative and curious people, on topics including illustration, design, photography, video, freelancing, and more. On Skillshare, millions of members come together to find inspiration and take the next step in their creative journey.

Image courtesy of Netflix and Parkwood Entertainment.

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