the crafting of art

I’ve been musing lately on the nature of art and craft.

The lines drawn between art and craft are arbitrary, rooted in systemic racism and misogyny, and ignore the root of both words.

They ignore the fact that there are items of great beauty, expression and emotion that are labelled as craft, and they ignore the skill and understanding required to create great art.

Like most arbitrary lines and binaries, I have exactly zero time for that nonsense.

If you really want to view some of the fuckery that exists along these lines, Key Differences and Difference Between both demonstrate an outstanding lack of understanding of both art and craft – not to mention language. But you don’t have to do that to yourself – I’ve summaries the former below.

  • Art is an unstructured and boundless form of work, that expresses emotions, feelings and vision.
  • Craft is an activity, which involves creation of tangible objects with the use of hands and brain.
  • Art is based on creative merit.
  • Crafts is based on learned skills and technique.
  • Art serves an aesthetic aesthetic purpose.
  • Craft serves a decorative or functional purpose.
  • Art emphasises ideas, feelings and visual qualities.
  • Craft emphasises the right use of tools and materials.
  • Art is difficult.
  • Craft is simple.
  • Art is immediate and intangible – it cannot be recreated.
  • Craft is continuing – it can be recreated as often as required.
  • Art emerges from the heart and soul.
  • Craft emerges from the mind.
  • Art is the result of innate talent.
  • Craft is the result of skill and experience.

Working, for a moment, within the use of art and craft as nouns, I’d argue that art (certainly the things I do that one might call art) meets every criterion in this list. A lot of the characteristics attributed to craft are the mechanics by which we build the art. A lot of the characteristics attributed to either are nonsense.

(If you’d like the full presentation in which I refute each of the delineations and the nonsense therein, I’m happy to provide my schedule of fees.)

But here’s the thing. Craft is a verb. A transitive verb. We craft things. The crafting is the action by which we make the art that you see. We craft a character, a scene, a story. We bring it all together and craft a show. Then you come along and see magic.

I can understand why the myths of innate artistic talent, artists as limitless fonts of creative output who work for passion and not for pay, and art as purely aesthetic are so pervasive. (But can we stop with them now?)

There’s an actor and acting coach out of LA called Marilyn McIntyre who will tell you, among other things, that acting is a verb and an audition is a noun. I reckon the same of true of art and craft.

So yeah, we craft things. One of those things is art.

Fight me.

Making Light of the Darkness

“Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

Steven Allen

It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes we can’t help but laugh at the most awful things? But if someone laughs at something that still feels raw to us, the hurt they cause is inescapable.

So, what’s the formula for making awful things funny? Can anyone turn anything into a joke? How soon is too soon?

Here’s one of my all-time favourite short stories…

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I first stumbled across this about 7 years ago at work, while trawling for social media content (half my job was finding or creating silly social media content – life’s weird). I read it, I started laughing, kept laughing and then needed about 10 minutes to calm down enough to share it with my colleagues. Then we all started laughing again. I still can’t think about it without chuckling (sometimes laughing aloud and scaring the dog).

But why is it funny? Kicking a friend in the face is not a fun thing to do. One might even argue that having a friend kick you in the face isn’t fun. But this story is fun. I’m laughing again now.


HUMOUR THEORIES

This piece in The Conversation (from a few years ago) has a look at a few theories on why we laugh at things. They have four ideas on why things might be funny:

  • They make us feel superior.
  • They build up to something bad but then end well and we are relieved.
  • They build up to one thing but then change direction and deliver something totally incongruous.
  • They do something that seems bad but in which nobody really gets hurt.

So, yeah. Nobody knows. But everyone can agree that humour needs to have a certain amount of danger in order to work. Too much and we’re just upset, too little and we’re bored.

Laughing inappropriately

Then there’s that awful thing when something terrible happens and you know you shouldn’t laugh, but you just can’t stop yourself.

Reading this piece from BBC Future about neuroscientist Sophie Scott’s work in the field of laughter managed to make me laugh without cracking any jokes. Apparently, that’s all about the shared social function of laughter. So listening to other people laugh (or, apparently, thinking about it) can send us into fits of giggles. Scroll down on the article and you can listen to two different laughs – the difference between the genuine laugh and the forced laugh is immediate.

But why? When? Who?

Despite all of the research into humour (which is way more than I would have guessed), there’s no real formula on when things become funny. According to this study. that’s because humour requires psychological distance, and that differs from person to person. Somewhere in amongst space, time, social relationships and hypotheticality is the funny bit.

Laughing at yourself

The one thing that everyone seems to be able to agree on is that jokes are always funnier when you’re laughing at yourself or mocking power structures. While ‘punching down’ (making fun of someone with less power than you) is just mean, ‘punching up’ (making fun of power structures) can be hilarious.

But sharing your own foibles and inviting people to laugh along with you? That’s golden.

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This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-asset.png

Sharing stories

When Belinda and I first starting putting together That Time Everything Went Well And We Were Totally Fine, we ran an anonymous survey in which we invited people to share a strange and silly thing that their anxiety had made them do.

Most of the stories are hilarious.

They’re not funny because we find ourselves laughing at the person who shared them, they’re funny because we can imagine being in that situation. They’re funny because we’ve all done ridiculous things in a moment of panic.

Laughing together is sharing humanity. And what’s not fun about that?

Prisons are a waste of money.

This article was first published in The Westsider Newspaper

Prisons are expensive. In the 2014-15 financial year, Australia spent $2.9 billion on them. We’re also sending more people to prison than ever before. Especially women. Over the last ten years, Australia has seen a 77% increase in the total number of women in prison.

About a third of the people currently in prison are on remand. That means they have been charged, but not found guilty or sentenced. They’re just stuck in prison while they wait for a court appearance.

‘This all begs the question, What are prisons for? If we’re sending more people to prison are the prisons actually helping anyone, outside or inside?’

Image by Nico Photography
IMAGE BY NICO PHOTOGRAPHY

Victoria is particularly good at overcrowding and over-sentencing. More people are on remand than ever before, and more people are being refused parole (and so kept in prison for their full sentence). You might think this is because crime is on the rise, but statistics say otherwise.

There’s a whole bunch of research that suggests neoliberal countries (think Australia and USA) tend to lock up more of their population, while social democracies (think Scandanavian countries) do not. There are also some very clear links between social welfare and rates of imprisonment. Countries with good social welfare services don’t tend to lock up as many of their citizens as other countries. So, as the gap between Australia’s poorest and richest people widens, so will our rates of incarceration.

But are the prisons effective?

Nope.

Increasing sentences doesn’t encourage people to stop criminal behaviour. In fact, criminalising someone (by unnecessarily imprisoning them) tends to increase their likelihood to reoffend.

Locking more people up, “…does not reduce the rate of serious crime, discourage potential offenders or reduce re-offending rates.” [Mirko Bagaric, Dean and Head of School of Law, Deakin University]. When a person is released from prison and tries to return to their community (as most do), they are often left with less options for housing and employment and so more reason to view criminal activity as the only viable option. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the majority of women in prison are there for nonviolent crime. Most prevalent are drug offenses and “offences against justice procedures, government security and operations.” Of the women in prison, about a third grew up in foster care and two-thirds have been in violent relationships. More than a quarter of these women have tried to kill themselves. When women do commit violent crime, it is most often in response to being the victim of violent crime.

In Hilary Beaton’s Outside In (currently being performed by Wit Incorporated at Bluestone Church Arts Space), we see seven women subjected to life in prison. Almost all of them are there as a result of chance or circumstance. Only one is a credible danger to people outside of prison. These women do not benefit from being locked up. Their imprisonment keeps nobody safe. The punitive nature of life in prison – constantly grasping to maintain privileges and play the game to end up on top – dehumanises and brutalises them.

They, like all the rest of us, just want to feel loved and safe.

Just because we were founded as a colony of convicts, doesn’t mean we should be aiming to replicate that situation today. We’d save a lot of money and, more importantly, a lot of lives.

Gender, Tragedy and Macbeth

In the lead-up to playing Banquo in The Tragedy of Macbeth for Wit Incorporated, I spoke to Beat Magazine about the show, gender, storytelling, and why Shakespeare is still a good time. Here’s the full interview.


Why swap the genders in Macbeth?

Why not? It seems trite, but there’s really no good reason not to mess with the genders in most scripts. People are people, regardless of their gender. We’re all products of our environment and upbringing, it’s just that some of us are told to be pretty and quiet, while others are told to be bold and brave.

The thing about most of the storytelling we have around us is that it’s inherently biased in favour of male characters. They get to be multifaceted, complete and well-drawn human beings. Typically, female characters tend to serve a purpose in someone else’s story – they’re spouses or plot devices, mostly. The strangest thing about it all is these characters have personalities that we think of as being inherently masculine or feminine, but they’re just not. It’s not only women who cry or men who are brave. When you flip the genders in a classic, like The Tragedy of Macbeth, you get to view a story we know so well in a new light. The exciting thing is how well it works with shuffled gender. Turns out, we’re all just people, who are capable of all sorts of things.

How does the story of Macbeth relate to us in 2016?

Like all good storytelling, the themes in Shakespeare’s play are things we continue to battle with throughout the ages. The original audience was captivated by a story set 500 years before they were born, but it still rang true. We’ve all found ourselves in situations that tempt us to take action that might not otherwise sit easy with us. We all experience love, hope, fear and loss.

The political intrigue and large-scale betrayal is all too recognisable in 2016. Scratch below the surface of a news feed and you’ll pretty quickly see how much conflict starts with envy and ambition. You only need to watch House of Cards to see how simple it is to transform Lord and Lady Macbeth into Frank and Claire Underwood.

How did discussions of privilege inform the production?

When we look at privilege and gender in our society, the history is so vast that it’s almost impossible to imagine how a complete flip could come about. We haven’t changed anything in the power structures of the play, we’ve just changed which gender has the power and which does not. This meant that we had to imagine a world where religion, mythology, storytelling, politics, heritage and everything else held women above all else.

We then had to consider which qualities we would assume were masculine and which were feminine, so feminine virtues in our world became about bravery, intellect, logic and reason, while masculine virtues include fertility, meekness, subservience and nurturing. It’s been a strange process, and a really enlightening one, to deconstruct what we assume is inherent in our gender and figuring out what we have learnt.

Sliding into battle – just girl things. Image: Nico Photography

There’s a whole lot of inequality and privilege that we live within every day. Wit Incorporated is starting with gender, because it’s the structure that we personally notice most, and we can’t wait to work with more of Melbourne’s amazing theatre-makers to bring ever more diversity to the stage.

What sets your production apart from other adaptations of Shakespearean stories?

Well, the gender-flip is a pretty big one! It’s pretty common to see some characters switched around in a contemporary production of Shakespeare. With hardly any female characters, and a whole lot of really talented women in the industry, it’s pretty-well inevitable. There are also occasionally single-gender productions, either the traditional all-male or a completely flipped all-female.

I suppose the thing that sets this exploration of gender apart is that we’ve imagined an entirely new world, in which women have always held power, but it’s been under the same structure as our own world. We’re not suggesting it’s a better option – absolute power for any one group of people in never a good thing – we’re just presenting it as feasible.

As far as we’re aware, this is the first time Macbeth has had a complete gender-flip.

The thing that Wit Incorporated always tries to do in our productions is start with the story. We think that the best foundation for good theatre is strong storytelling. We’re all about making sure the characters are well-formed, the actors and creative team all know the world we’re creating, and the story is clear. All we really want to do is entertain our audience!