Culture Shock: Does making art have to be such hard work?
The crucial thing about art is not how long it takes to create, but that it is created all
Pablo Picasso is thought to have produced about 50,000 artworks in his lifetime, but does that make him any less of an artist? Photograph: Ralph Gatti/Getty
‘How long did it take you to write that?” It was a curious question to begin the conversation, seemingly innocent but slightly loaded, from one artist to another. Writer and performer Amy Conroy had just finished reading a short piece last weekend at the Lir. It was, by any interpretation, a brilliant exercise. Conroy, one of five participants on an international mentorship scheme run by Pan Pan Theatre Company, had spent the previous six months exploring an idea in consultation with English theatre artist Tim Crouch.
Conroy’s idea was to make a work inspired by the state of psychosis: where delusion bleeds into reality. Conroy seemed nervous: she fidgeted as she read, occasionally shaking out her hand, as though alleviating a spasm. She began with a wry report of coming to the theatre that day, which was almost conspiratorially involving; it felt like she had read your mind. She moved stealthily into a fiction, describing an encounter a few minutes earlier with a fellow playwright, begrudgingly congratulating him on a successful piece . . . about psychosis.
The playwright humiliates her in front of us, though: she has misunderstood his play, not distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Her humiliation is resolved in a violent act: “So I punched him in the neck.” You looked again at her sore hand.
The performance left a fizzy effect on the brain. Was this vividly imagined punch-up and its ripple in reality a little like slipping into psychosis? To have distilled something so complex into a spryly and artfully involving performance must have taken time.
Crouch knew that the piece had been written quickly, though – over the space of a day or so – and marvelled at Conroy’s work ethic. In the period of their mentorship, for instance, Conroy had written for TV soap opera Red Rock, created and directed a new show for the Ark and was completing a new commission for the Galway International Arts Festival, Luck Just Kissed You Hello, which premieres next month.
Crouch marvelled at Conroy in a way that someone might regard an extraordinary creature from a distant planet, managing to admire her abilities while preferring his own. As a writer himself, he admitted, a productive day’s work might result in arriving at a single line of dialogue. His last play, Adler & Gibb, had taken five years to complete. Hearing their different methods, it wasn’t always clear who would benefit most from the mentorship.
Does art have to be such hard work? A laborious investment of blood, sweat, tears and occasionally some writing? Is art that comes in a burst necessarily less accomplished than art that has matured slowly? It isn’t just an academic question. Our prejudices about the relationship between art and effort have sometimes affected the status of good work.
While working for the post office, Anthony Trollope would write before his shift began, from 5.30 to 8.30 each morning, requiring exactly 250 words every 15 minutes. If he finished one novel before 8.30 am, he immediately began another. “Let [the artists’] work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer,” Trollope said. “No gigantic efforts will then be necessary.”
When that sentiment was published, in 1883, Trollope’s reputation was almost destroyed. Serious art, the romantic notion held, ought to be a gigantic effort. That stubborn perception is still propped up by the narratives of media and marketing – from “difficult second albums” to “long-awaited follow-ups” – and it creates a false dichotomy: the tortured genius versus the prolific hack, Harper Lee vs John Grisham.
But it has also long been challenged. “The ‘artistic temperament’ is a disease that affects amateurs,” wrote novelist and critic GK Chesterton, witheringly. “Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily or perspire easily.”
Trollope wrote 49 novels in 35 years. Shakespeare wrote 39 plays in 25 years (probably). Picasso maintained regular office hours and produced about 50,000 artworks. (He also lived to be 91.)
But to become an artist of “large and wholesome vitality” is itself a long journey, built on patience and practice. Conroy had been an actor for years before she started writing, just five years ago.
And though Crouch’s conversation with her sounded, in places, like the tortoise interviewing the hare, were they so dissimilar? Crouch’s first play, My Arm, was written in five days. (“I wrote it almost without thinking,” he once said.)
Instead, it seemed they had settled into different methods of attaining that condition common to all artists: creative flow. It doesn’t matter, finally, if art comes easily or more fully ripened, but that it comes at all.
How long does it take to create a valid artwork? How long have you got?