Dan Richards: The Beechwood Airship Interviews London, Harper Collins, 2015 pp534
Have we arrived at the end of art for its own sake? In an age where higher education has never been more expensive, art school and other creative outlets now emphasize the vocational and the practical. Perhaps art for its own sake is no longer economically viable. It’s this question which seems to be at the core of Dan Richard’s latest book – part memoir, part polemic, part insight into the creative processes of a wide variety of artists, musicians, actors and more. The title comes from an ambitious project Richards undertook whilst studying at art school, constructing a fully functional airship that hung over the student union bar. In the course of the making of this project Richards’s becomes increasingly interested in the creative process and method of visionary artists of all stripes and with a rather straightforward approach goes off to ask them about it. It’s these interviews that form the majority of the book as alongside the engaging Richards we get to sit down with figures such as Dame Judi Dench, Manic Street Preachers, Jane Bown and Stewart Lee.
What connects this wide range of figures is not any commonality of pursuit but rather a dedication to the idea of craft. Whether it be music, art, photography or comedy the practitioners listed all possess a distinct creative vision and an attitude that places their art first and allows for all other concerns to follow after. In an era of penny pinching that forces art to justify itself and expects economic outcomes for degrees in design it’s a deeply refreshing thing to see such a sustained defence of the centrality and primacy of creativity as an end, rather than a means towards a satisfactory economic outcome.
Along the way we gain charming small insights into how the individual’s creative processes actually function – that Judi Dench learns her lines in the bath, that Jane Bown is full of incredible stories of the Observer’s history and Stewart Lee writes his routines whilst pushing a pram around London’s suburbs. Method comes across as something vague, something hard to define and frequently something that is created as they go along. When creativity for its own sake is valued, and artists allowed to pursue it they discover the freedom to fail – freed from the expectation or pressure of coming up with a product to sell or some money to make at the end of it. This freedom allows for the development of the artist as an artist rather than a producer of goods. Rather than have a culture driven by the bottom line these figures prove it’s possible to have a culture energised by the passion of the people who create it. As the status of some of the interviewees prove, this attitude can often translate into real success too. Stewart Lee is often praised as one of the finest stand up comics in the country, the Manic Street Preachers are rock legends and as for Dame Judi Dench, well…
This is a much more interesting book than a simply defence of art for its own sake – whilst the concept is defended the sense of melancholy and of fragility is never full removed. Judi Dench mourns the death of repertory theatre as the training ground for new dramatic voices, Stewart Lee rails against the transformation of the fleeting funny moment on stage into easily consumable content and music designer Vaughn Oliver at one point went bankrupt. Throughout the books there is a deep awareness of the ephemeral nature of pursuing art and the very real risks this kind of pursuit entails. Richards’s own time at art school seems to have left him more than a little disillusioned, as the fees increase going to art school becomes something ‘decedent’ and the price will ‘surely cost out those unsure of what they want to become, or looking for an adventure.’
The interviews then are not just hopeful, but defiant too – a much needed opportunity to see that vision need not be sacrificed to vocation and there is still a desperate need of crafts-people, artisans, visionaries and mavericks who are motivated by things other than their latest advance.
Richards’s himself seems to sit well in this category too – the book, like so much of the art he admires and much like the titular airship he made is delightfully well crafted. Large, reassuringly solid, it wears it construction lightly – Richards’s allows us to join him in the process of figuring out just what this project is. Through footnotes, digressions, time and location switches we get to join with Richards as he pieces together this remarkable collection of interviews trying to figure out what kind of art it is that he is creating. Idiosyncrasies are often mistaken for being frivolous but Richards and his quite remarkable book prove that underneath the levity, creativity is a deeply serious business, grappling with issues of meaning, of culture and of creation that affect us all.
At the book’s close the airship which Richards so carefully pieced together comes down from the student union bar rafters and he takes it out and burns it on a pyre in the middle of the English countryside. The book opens with its construction and Richards reminds the reader at the books conclusion that the airship is ‘gone. Returned a book. You hold it in your hands.’
A deeply rewarding, light hearted yet truly thought provoking book it’s an inspiring defence of the value of sheer creativity, unfettered from the demands of capitalism. Art may be fleeting and intrinsically fragile but the depth of insight offered by these interviews make this a must read for anyone involved in creating and may well prove to be an indispensable source of inspiration and hope for the next generation of artists committed to creating art over making a healthy profit