Visual artists as Theatre Designers: a response

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

The original Guardian article, to which this responds, can be read here.

“Why don’t more visual artists do theatre?” This was the somewhat alarming headline introducing a Mark Lawson article in The Guardian in July. The piece itself was more nuanced. Crucially, he accepts that “stage design is clearly a form of art” and narrows “visual artists” down to “full-time painters and sculptors”. Nonetheless, there is something very fundamentally wrong with the underlying assumptions. I would argue that this is because we see ourselves not as jumped up scene painters, out of our depth in complexities of visual art, but as amphibians – operating fully in both visual and performance environments.

Across art forms, perhaps the most fundamental type of integrity is the successful pairing of content with form. What constitutes a good sonnet doth not a novel make. Painters paint because that is their language, and sculptors sculpt because that is theirs. Some diversify. Others specialise. But the one thing they must keep hold of is truth to form. And us…? We do all sorts, it’s true, and, yes, our work as individual artists is often not clearly delineated because it’s collaborative. Nonetheless, the fundamental truth of the matter is that we are doing the same thing as our counterparts: making art in our chosen form. We are not doing it because we never mastered oils or got the feel for marble. Nor because we lack the rarefied, individual vision apparently necessary for the white walls of a gallery. Nor are we like those antimatter doubles of fine-art visionaries: commercial designers, sacrificing the integrity of our work to meet the demands of the market.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to get angry about being misunderstood. When we take apart what I and – I’m sure – many others see as basic truths, they are neither self-evident nor straightforward. I shall look at this problem in more depth by addressing a few key points from Lawson’s article, which you can read in its entirety using the link at the end of this article.

It’s clear from the start that Lawson doesn’t really mean artists as a group at all. All his examples are famous, and he makes a revealingly irrelevant point about the financial value of anything they’d produce. What he really means, I think, is that more visual art celebrities should have a go at theatre design. This is an odd thing to say. (In fact the converse is true: more theatre designers should be celebrated as visual artists.) He talks about the work of people such as Hockney, Gormley and Munch. He ponders his dream pairings: Lucian Freud designing Pinter, for example. I think this betrays how he sees success in the arts: that to be good is to be highly recognisable. If this were presented as an absolute truth it would be fatuous. But, in fact, it is a common misperception that we have to address, for a simple reason: if I were to play devil’s advocate, the first argument I would make against our status as artists is that we are compromised because we have to sacrifice our personal visions for the greater good of the production.

Luckily, this argument doesn’t add up: a collaborative process is not a zero sum game. If we look at contemporary visual arts practice, it’s clear that the notion of an artist’s personal vision as work’s chief subject is no longer a central tenet of belief. Pieces such as Gillian Wearing’s overly plagiarised Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say, a series of photographs showing members of the public displaying a sheet of paper on which they have been asked to write something, is one famous example among many of artworks that are creating a frame to enable others to express themselves. Neither Wearing nor any other artists engaged in this kind of approach are at all diminished by their choice to step back. No more should the theatre designer who creates an empty space for a performer, or who takes a directorial idea as a starting point.

Lawson makes a partially valid point about the “crossover” between fine art theatre design being  “discouraged by the educational system, in which stage design is often a separate specialism”. Of course, using the term “crossover” suggests that there is more of a divide than exists. Actually, design is taught at art schools as well as theatre conservatoires and this, I think, serves a function. Thinking about the backgrounds of designers I know, some came to it from a love of art and some from a love of theatre. Teaching it in both sorts of institutions simply reflects the truth of the matter. And yes, it is specialist but because there is a huge amount of craft to learn and knowledge to absorb. It just doesn’t follow that this sets us apart from visual art.

I think the problem lies in a false assumption that “art” and “design” are terms in opposition. I would suggest that “design” covers our processes in the widest sense: that fusion of expertise, hard work and vision that we so often take for granted in our own everyday practices. “Art” is something more nebulous and I won’t wade into the debate about what defines it. But I will take a stab at a practical working usage in terms of theatre design. When our work engages with the imagination to convey something, rather than simply serving a function, then it is operating as art. It’s possible, I suppose, to create a set that does nothing more than provide entrances in the right place or a costume that simply makes an actor not look unclothed, but in practice, the vast majority of designs do more than that. Designs tell stories, trigger emotions, create atmospheres or just establish a sense of potentiality. How are any of those things different from a definition of visual art?

So, how good are non-specialists? One of my key inspirations as a prospective theatre designer very much meets Lawson’s category of “fulltime painters”: Hockney. In fact, I met him while researching an A Level art project, though that’s another story. He’s an object lesson in why it’s great for people from other visual art forms to have a go at theatre design but not to stay too long. His designs are spectacular and often extraordinarily beautiful. His take on Hogarth’s engravings for The Rake’s Progress is a pretty much perfect marriage of musical and visual styles. But fundamentally, his designs for performance are a matter of placing the opera or ballet in an animated Hockey painting. This works fantastically for some productions – but would stifle most.

One thing I suspect many painters wouldn’t think about, although Hockney does, is time.  Yet time is as much part of theatre design as space, light and form. With that in mind, it seems to me that the theatrical part of our artistic identities has much to give the visual arts world. I know a few designers, myself included, who have made work for galleries. And so we should. We have probably all seen deadly examples of performance art, in which an arresting visual image is dulled by its failure to hold interest over time. Or, for that matter, by a lack of understanding of the very human relationship between performer and audience. These are failures to grasp things that, for us, are bread and butter. Perhaps, in the end, it’s not that more “visual artists” should do theatre but that more theatre designers should make forays into gallery spaces.

(The cover image for this article is of a work-in-progress performance at Chelsea Theatre of Balloon, written and directed by Carolyn Defrin and designed by yours truly.)

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