I’ve read with interest the reaction on Twitter, blogs, etc, to PJ Harvey’s residency at Somerset House. A couple of floors beneath our offices she’s installed a glass recording studio in a room that was once used as an indoor shooting gallery for the army officers who used to live in this building.
Tickets have sold out for the opportunity to come and watch her record a new album. Friends, some people on Twitter, the ‘Blamesbury’ Set, some critics, etc, have decried this as the stunt to end all stunts, the destructive commercialization of the artist’s process – an unnatural extension of the same ‘gravy train’ that has spewed t-shirts, limited edition signed albums, etc.
It’s a choice, made by an artist, to open up the process to a small group of people. How is this any different from a painter setting up his or her canvas in a field? The expressive possibilities that come from the emotional interaction between the artist and haphazard audiences is nothing more than a creative choice.
She’s immunized, of course, from every stare, because you can see in but she can’t see out. That said, I’d doubt she’d be oblivious to the feedback that will accumulate as she progresses. It’s bound to temper her choices.
The critics also moan that it has been done before. “The box is so passé”. “Blaine, Hirst, Houdini.” So what?
When tubes of oil paint were first sold in the 1800s it enabled artists to leave their studios, work in public and offer the world Impressionism and all that followed. Do we decry the collective and individual brilliance of those interactions with the elements? The twigs and dirt that inadvertently mixed with the paints and adhered to the canvas? Confronting people and their stares, their smiles, their grimaces is no different to confronting a storm for some.
In the David Hockney documentary that tracked his project to chronicle the British landscape one of the most memorable moments for me was the confrontation between him, the canvas, the landscape and a bunch of teenagers stopping to look. You could see him rise to their reactions, feeding off them.
I’m no musician, but I do know that the parts of me that I’d be comfortable as describing as in some way artistic are fed by the reactions of others as I work. It doesn’t mean that solitude isn’t a necessity or a creative choice for some, but let’s cut her some slack for making her choice here to put her process on show and feed off the audience as she creates.
We’re accustomed these days to a transparent or translucent word in which our thoughts, views, criticisms, peccadillos and more are pegged to a collective and very public laundry line. These expressive tendencies feed us or we wouldn’t choose to express ourselves in this way in public. Our thoughts on Twitter and Facebook and blogs and the reactions they catalyse are kind of the same thing that PJ Harvey is exposing herself to in this project.
What’s that saying about glass houses again?
I wish our temporary neighbour luck and I’ll have my glass to the wall.