collaborative graft and being daft

What does it mean to make something, alone or together? Ideas of individual creative authorship remain remarkably persuasive, but I’ve been wondering a lot recently whether any book or art object could ever be ascribed to a single person, when behind the names associated with creative work always exist so many different kinds of labour. I explored this a bit in Wheesht where I wrote about how “commonly-held assumptions about what a creative individual is, or does, or looks like, obscures the messy reality of how . . . work actually gets done.” It has always seemed to me that an awful lot of hidden context and collaboration lies behind the best creative work, and I’ve found myself reflecting on this a lot over the past few weeks — both because I find myself in the middle of producing a really interesting project with other creative people, and because I keep coming across things that, in different ways, are exploring the same idea. Here are three of those things, exploring this topic, that you might enjoy watching or listening to this weekend:

Louise Bourgeois with supportive assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, who worked with the artist for over 30 years.
  1. Taxi Drivers

Artist, Lucian Freud, once referred to the relationship between himself and his printmaker as that between a passenger and a taxi driver: that is, between someone who knows exactly where they want to go, and the vehicle that takes them there. Freud’s bald contrast between individual creative drive and the mechanistic act of being driven provides the starting point for Radio 4’s three-part series, in which artist and performer, Scottee, examines the creative links between the individuals who are associated with original ideas and those who help their work get made. Dymystifying the very idea of creative work as a product of individual authorship, Scottee talks to studio assistants, painters and makers (who are often artists themselves), to the skilled workers at Anthony Gormley’s foundry, and to people on the production lines that turn out the prints and postcards that we buy in gallery gift shops. Questioning many received ideas about fabrication and collaboration, and looking at (with more than a nod to Walter Benjamin) the multiple ways that late-capitalist art-objects disguise the means of their production, the series offers a fascinating exploration of relationships that often seem very uneven, and ends with hopeful suggestions for alternative models of creative making that are focused a little more on interdependence, mutual care, and partnership.

Anthony Gormley, Sleeping Field from Fit (2016)

2. Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street

Like many little kids in the 1970s (and later), I was a huge fan of Sesame Street.

The mere sight of this guy (who I referred to as the “noony noony man”) filled the three-year-old me with absurd levels of excitement, and I loved Bert, Ernie, Oscar, and the anarchic energy of the Cookie Monster. What I certainly did not appreciate was the huge amount of collaborative, creative labour that made Sesame Street actually happen. Perhaps because good-quality, publicly funded children’s television was (and remains) such an institution in the UK, the hurdles that needed to be overcome just to get a programme that was fun and inclusive, educational and hilarious, made in Nixon’s America was not something I’d ever really thought about. Nor had I paused to think about how teams of talented writers, puppeteers, actors, animators, composers, educational psychologists, and some of the best musicians in New York City, might be so collectively, creatively dedicated to Sesame Street precisely because of its social purpose, knowing that it was a project that made a difference to many children.

It was worth properly pausing to think about such things with this documentary, and watching Sesame Street’s truly joyous creative project unfold against a backdrop of social inequality and racial prejudice was both eye-opening and deeply moving. I defy you to watch this documentary without a tear in your eye and an enormous sense of gratitude for the different kinds of creative vision, enterprise, and labour that all combined in the early making of this much-beloved show.

3. The Beatles: Get Back

I confess to being completely baffled by reviews of The Beatles: Get Back (such as this sour account by Alex Petridis in the Guardian) which have described it as being somehow aimless or boring. Tom and I were utterly gripped by every moment of Get Back – not because we are mildly nerdy about the Beatles – but because of the fascinating insights Peter Jackson’s remarkable documentary provides into the process of making something out of quite literally nothing. At the start of January, 1969, the band are desultorily noodling around a soulless set at Twickenham and just a few weeks later, they are up on the roof at Savile Row, having spent three unlikely weeks developing the amazing work that formed the creative heart of two great albums (Abbey Road, as well as Let it Be), and awakening the seeds of many of the ideas that three of them were to later carry forward solo.

The Get Back sessions have, until recently, held an odd legacy in Beatles lore as being dull or unproductive but Jackson’s documentary shows how very far this is from being the case. Yes, these are individuals that are quite obviously moving in different directions and drifting apart from one another, and yet each remains (in their individual ways) deeply committed to their shared creative project and collaborative endeavour. Every moment of Peter Jackson’s impeccably edited 8 hours fizzes with the Beatles distinctive combination of vulnerability and fearlessness: each of them seems, at different moments, terribly afraid that nothing is going to happen. But they still turn up every day, drink another cup of tea, eat another round of toast, smoke another pack of Dunhills, and just carry on working hard at getting there, together – hoping that, in the end, they will.

I’d argue that really good creative work rarely has its origin in a single, remarkable insight, but that it more generally arises from carefully teasing out ideas that are not just half-baked but sometimes barely baked at all. Get Back reveals countless instances of great things emerging from half-baked ideas, simply because a group of people are happy to show up to see what happens and are then willing to put in some proper work to improve it. And for the Get Back Beatles, the half-baked becomes the fully baked in many different ways.

For example, a day or two into their time at Apple, Billy Preston shows up, like a gentle Deus ex Machina into their chaotic creative process. Completely outclassing them with his musicality, Preston’s easy sound rounds their sound out, and his simple presence in the studio somehow helps them all to develop the impetus and energy to improve what they are doing – to start turning nothing into something.

And then there’s the famous incident where George is instructed by John to just replace the missing phrase that will later become “no other lover” in Something with the words “pomegranate” or “cauliflower.” This moment is sometimes scoffed at (by Beatles aficionados as much as anyone else) but it actually makes a really important point about how a lot of creative work actually gets made: that is, if you’ve not figured one bit out yet, stick in a placeholder and just keep plugging away until the right thing turns up to fill that space. John shows George how a creative placeholder allows you to suspend your frustration with what seems like a dead-end in the process, and to carry on working around it.

The pomegranate is just one of countless lyrical placeholders in these sessions, and it is telling that they are very often something daft like a fruit or vegetable. Because although this work is serious for the Beatles, they are certainly at their creative best when they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. What became most evident to me watching these sessions was that the Beatles seemed most likely to make really good stuff happen when they were playing around with it, and approaching the work with a genuine sense of fun, openness and freedom. At various times during the sessions, various degrees of frustration are expressed by Glyn Johns or George Martin that the whole process seems, to them, to be stalling because the Beatles seem to be messing around and not approaching a particular song with the seriousness of intent that might result in a “proper” take. But what the production team never seem to get is that it is precisely when Paul and John are singing Get Back in another silly accent, or wildly ad-libbing in the middle of a take, or running through the whole of Two of Us like crazed, gritted teeth ventriloquists, that they are honing what’s half-baked into brilliance. For any creative person, these sessions are an object lesson in how repeating something, changing it around to keep it fresh, plugging away, and just having fun, can really make the best work happen.

A lot of myths circulate around the Beatles and their creative process and Jackson’s documentary really offers the best kind of demystifcation. For these eight hours show how, in order to produce great work, the Beatles needed to be willing to turn up, to show vulnerability and uncertainty in front of one another, to stay collectively determined, to ride out frustration, and to remain open to everything that was on offer in the room on every given day with a lightness of heart, a fresh round of toast, and an unfailing sense of humour. There’s no stardust or moonbeams, no moments of wild inspiration, and, despite many obvious personal differences, surprisingly little ego. There’s just the difficult, uneven, and uncertain creative work of grafting hard and being daft with other people.

Taxi Drivers is available on BBC sounds. Thanks to Ginny for the recommendation.

Street Gang: How we got to Sesame Street is available to watch on various streaming services in the UK.

The Beatles: Get Back is available to watch on Disney Plus. I reckon it’s worth a month’s subscription just to watch it.