Meditation: On the Writing of Art

‘Writing is thinking’ (Verlyn Klinkenborg and Toril Moi).

Since 1999, my visual and sound work projects have begun and ended with writing. Until recently, they were made within the context of academic research. At the outset (and long before the brush touched the canvas or the first note was struck), my practice-based projects were expressed in terms of a proposal that outlined the: background and environment to the inquiry; question or problematic to be explored; aims; materials and methodology; potential social impact; and anticipated outcomes. Likewise, at the conclusion of a project, a critical assessment of the outcome was made, one that: compared realisation and intent; assessed the ambition and originality of the completed work; and defined its contribution to the field of the subject and medium. Between the starting block and the finishing line, the project’s developmental stages and evolution were recorded in words and images. This approach to research design and accountability will be familiar to anyone who has been involved in the sciences and social sciences. When applied to the arts it can, at best, help to clarify the nature, scope, and direction of a creative commitment and, at worst, prove utterly fatuous.

The knowledge derived from this procedure was distilled into booklets and websites for the public and my peers. More pedantic and self-aggrandising statements about the projects’ ambitions and achievements were packaged for academic scrutiny, and submitted to the quinquennial (usually) Research Excellence Framework exercise.

John Harvey, Settings of the Psalms, The Pictorial Bible I, Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 2001; Seal Up the Vision and Prophecy, The Pictorial Bible II, Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 2007; The Bible in Translation, The Pictorial Bible III & The Aural Bible II, Aberystwyth: School of Art Press, 2015.

Now, having taken early retirement from university, I’ve left behind the paraphernalia of ‘outputs’, ‘ratings’, and ‘impact statements’. However, the concept of art practice as research (or, better, as a ‘search’), and the desire to provide an explanatory accompaniment to the work, travels with me still. A practice (like mine) that proceeds from an idea derived from either a textual or found-sound source requires a textual articulation. The resultant work must have sufficient formal integrity to stand on its own two feet, of course. However, unlike texts, images and sounds are non-propositional statements and, as such, are incapable of telling their whole story by themselves.

John Harvey, R R B V E Ǝ T N Ƨ O A, The Aural Bible series website, 2015; The Bible in Translation, The Aural Bible series website, 2016; The Biblical Record, The Aural Bible series website, 2019.

My ideas don’t descend from heaven spontaneously, suddenly, and fully formed. Rather, they emerge from, and are crystallised by, the process of writing. Through writing, ideas are tested, interrogated, and shaped for deployment. Writing enables me to mark and comprehend the developmental stages; to distance myself from process of making (in some small measure); and to assess their resolution more dispassionately.

I began to write about my work in earnest on October 16, 1991 — the year after I’d completed my PhD in Art History. The Studio Book, as it was called, took the form of a diary and assumed the role of a confessional, self-reckoning, and compass, as I sought to orientate myself to the local landscape after a three-year hiatus from painting and drawing:

In Aberystwyth I feel as though I’m in exile, desperately looking for a subject that will make sense of painting again. I find myself looking for views, motifs, and weather conditions that stir the same emotions and revive the vision that I’d experienced in Abertillery. The sense of place was important to me, a few years ago. I aimed to convey some kind of mood (melancholy) back then. These days, the works are about either surface or structure only. There’s a missing dimension; an absent ‘spirit’.

Studio Book (October 16, 1991) 2.
Studio Book (1991- ) 3-4.

On reviewing the failure of my first relief drawing — based on the landscape of Blaina, Momouthshire — which I’d constructed from paper a year earlier, the entry records:

It looks like toytown — too illustrative; too intent on giving full recognition to individual components. The parts must be subordinate to the whole. Those aspects that work best convey a sensation, rather than merely describe a surface. The figure to ground relationships are crude and obvious; there’s little integration or ambiguity, and too great a distinction between positive and negative forms. The space is too literal.

Studio Book (October 22, 1991) 4.
John Harvey, working in the Elysian Grove studio, Aberystwyth (July 1991) & Blaina (1990) paper and pencil relief construction, 40 × 40 × 5 cm.

The book also contained descriptions of technical procedures, paint recipes, diagrammatisations of ideas, reflections on the work of relevant artists, theorisations, declarations of intent, and questions that I’d be able to answer only through making.

Studio Book (2014- ) 50-51.

Today’s Studio Book accompanies my sound practice. It comprises notes on, and visualisations of, production and performance technologies and sound and textual sources, chiefly. Since July 2014, the narrative, critical, and evaluative aspects of writing about my work have been assigned to online blogs (such as this one, and its predecessors: Diary (July 16, 2014-September 4, 2018) and Diary (September 15, 2018-June 30, 2021)).

Writing objectifies a dialogue between the work and myself. It has been my confidante, counsellor, tutor, tonic, and muse. Writing serves to clarify what’s has been done, is being done, and must yet be done, and holds me accountable for how I spend me time, energies, and abilities, hour-by-hour and day-by-day. At times, when a solution to a problem has eluded me, I’ve discovered an answer simply by articulating the question in words. The analogue and, latterly, digital pages tell a story about the creator in relation to the creative process that would otherwise remain hidden. Writing, in this respect, is a means of revelation to, for, and about me principally and, sometimes, exclusively. Writing is my far side of the moon — always turned away from the audience and facing the darkness of unknowing — without which the full-orbed splendour of endeavour could not be comprehended.

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